David Rodeback's Blog

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Friday, October 21, 2005
I Met the City Council Candidates (Again)

Last evening at the Senior Citizens Center in American Fork, the city council candidates gathered for one final meet-the-candidates event, the third such public event (another was private) since the primary election narrowed the field, and, in fact, the third in seven days. Mayoral candidates have a final event next Thursday at 7:00 p.m., also at the Senior Center.

My report on this event will not be a play-by-play, but mostly will mix my notes some new matters which were raised with some of my own commentary on those matters. In a day or two, I'll also touch on some philosophical issues which were at least mentioned last evening and in some other similar events.

First, I note that all six candidates were on their game last night, for the entire two hours. This is impressive, given that their schedule of such events has been rather grueling, including three public events in seven days. Some candidates spend hours practicing and preparing for such events, too. Campaigning is not for the lazy or faint-hearted.

Once again, Keith Richan, Judy Price, and (I'm told) Ginger Hunter deserve thanks for organizing the event. Richan moderated, as he did in the similar event before the primary. The audience was about 20, not counting candidates Heidi Rodeback, Dale Gunther, Terry Fox, Marc Ellison, Councilman Jimmie Cates, and Councilwoman Juel Belmont. (I'm using reverse alphabetical order this time for variety's sake.)

The format was a bit murky in principle and description, but in practice it worked out this way: Each candidate had five minutes for a statement about anything. Then in the second round each candidate had four minutes for a statement about anything. This is at least one too many long statements, for both the candidates and the audience, but at least the topic was open. Then questions were solicited from the audience, and the candidates were given two minutes each to answer them. This is still too long for most questions, and severely limits the number of questions which can be asked and answered in a fixed amount of time. The moderator suggested increasing the time to three minutes; I suggested one. We stayed at two, which allowed, I think, three questions and the closing statements to fit in the hour. (With one minute, it could have been five or six questions.) Then the meeting ended approximately on time.

Once again, before proceeding further, I must note the limitations and bias of your (dubiously) humble blogger. One of the candidates is my spouse; feel free to filter my observations accordingly, despite my attempts to be objective in that sense. Moreover, my commentary is in another sense inherently subjective: It is essentially limited to what interests me and what I noticed. It is my commentary. Moreover, I've been to several events with these candidates and am generally disinclined to repeat what I have observed or reported before, so this report is deliberately selective, with no pretensions to completeness. If you find any of this unacceptable, you probably should be attending the events yourself, not relying on some blogger to report them.

Rodeback said more than she has before, based on her own experience, about how the City in recent years has frustrated, confused, ignored, disrespected, and generally failed to support its volunteer committees. Having observed most of her experience myself, and having quite a bit of my own, I can say she was still pulling her punches.

Belmont expanded more than before on how developers tend to write the contracts, and the City signs them, suggesting that the City needs to be more aggressive in negotiating the terms of contracts, in defense of its own needs and interests.

I was pleased that one resident raised the subject of the American Fork Library's comparatively meager book budget. Rodeback noted her fondness for the King County (Seattle, Washington area) library system she enjoyed in her childhood and youth, where one could go to any library in the county and enjoy the same privileges. Ellison picked up the theme and talked about a similar system in eastern Virginia, and mentioned often going to the Orem Library because of the American Fork Library collection's inadequacies. Belmont said other cities don't want to cooperate in such efforts. (Note to self: This is politics, where persuasion is often possible.) On the broader topic of major City resources (library, marina, recreation center, etc.), Fox noted that we need to think outside the box sometimes and take advantage of opportunities, and we haven't been willing to do that. Gunther said that we need to market these community assets far more aggressively. (I have blogged on the need to improve the library collection - and I have spent a fair amount of time and some money at the Orem Library, like some other American Forkers I know. I hope for a collection to match our beautiful building.)

Rodeback and Fox, in that order, expressed concerns about agendas being amended at (figuratively) the last minute, to rush matters through the City Council without allowing due time for consideration and for public comment. At its last meeting, this happened with a controversial issue. In that meeting, before the vote, Rodeback objected, pointing out to the Council that some very interested parties would want to comment, but that the amended agenda meant most of them were unaware that the Council was acting on that matter. Fox agreed and emphasized the need for the Mayor and City staff to do a better, timelier job providing needed information to the Council. He also added a representative anecdote of residents being treated poorly by the Mayor and City Council in Council meetings, noting that sometimes in such situations he has been embarrassed to be working for American Fork City.

Earlier in the evening (not for the first time), Belmont had noted that the right thing to do when a last-minute matter comes up, without time for Council members to study and come to understand it, is to vote no. (Rodeback says one should abstain in that situation.) Last week, however, Belmont and the other current Council members all voted to approve the last-minute item. Only later (the next day) did at least one Council member confess to having voted without understanding the issue. (Rodeback diplomatically did not name names on that point.) Neither Belmont nor Cates used any subsequent opportunity last evening to comment on their vote on that matter. If they themselves understood the issue at the time of their vote, and if they thought the use of the amended agenda in that case was justified and not abusive, you'd think they would have made sure they explained that.

(My own opinion is that the law allows amended agendas for a good reason: Sometimes there really is an urgent item. However, the amended agenda should not be used to rush an item through the Council in order to avoid public knowledge or comment. It should only be used when something really is urgent - and that situation should not be caused by staff or Mayoral procrastination, whereby something which was not inherently urgent becomes so. When an amended agenda must be used, someone at the City should pick up the phone and fire up the e-mail, and advise stakeholders - not just Council and staff - of the change as soon and as completely as reasonably possible. Any other approach potentially abuses the public trust. In response to abuse, abstention may not be enough. A cunning mayor could use certain members' tendency to abstain in such situations effectively to neutralize their potential opposing votes. He could do this by putting the item on an amended agenda in such a away that he knows they will abstain. So voting no must be considered an available option, too. In general, in every instance where the amended agenda is abused, Council members should refuse to make or second the relevant motion and, if it comes to a vote, should seriously consider either abstaining or voting against the Mayor's wishes. Yes, I know; in some ways I'm a wild-eyed idealist. But think what it would do for public trust in government!)

Rodeback noted that the Council spends a lot of time rubber-stamping Planning Commission recommendations (she called it "piecework"), and suggested that the Council consider the Planning Commission's decisions authoritative and avoid a lot of redundancy.  Belmont, one of at least two Planning Commission veterans among the Council candidates, noted that in eight years she has voted against Planning Commission recommendations only twice. But she did not overtly endorse the procedural change Rodeback proposed.

(As I see it, the Council could establish the regulations, then back off and let Planning Commission decisions be binding, as long as the Planning Commission is acting in good faith and according to established rules and principles. Of course, there would have to be a reasonable mechanism for appeal, by developers, the City itself, and residents. The Council could be a venue for these appeals, without needing to vote on every Commission decision. This assumes that City officials and staff would effectively enforce both the regulations and the decisions, which in itself would be an improvement. Otherwise, much of the effort is pointless. Worse, a mayor could stack the Planning Commission with people who either lack the necessary expertise and mindset or don't care about the rules, and slip all sorts of bad things through. I wonder if any of this would require any amendment of the City's Municipal Code; or would it simply require more enlightened practices? Some may think this is not democratic enough, because the Planning Commission is not elected. But its members are appointed by an elected Mayor and are subject to ratification by an elected City Council, which is democratic enough for me. I actually trust those officials more than the voters to find people with the right temperament and technical abilities to serve on the Planning Commission.)

The rest of the matters I will raise in connection with last evening's event are essentially philosophical, and will be treated in subsequent posts (here and here).

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