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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Politics and Punch I: Setting and Cast

Here I tell you who was there, where "there" was, what questions I submitted that didn't get asked, and so forth.

This is the first of three posts about a single event. Here I set the stage, name the cast of characters, and provide some context. The second part, about American Fork City Council candidates and issues, and the third part, mostly about schools and vouchers, will make more sense if you read this first. But read what you want; it's still a relatively free country.

Not counting candidates and other elected officials, about 30 people attended tonight's gathering of American Fork City Council candidates and other local officials at the Alpine School District's headquarters. Some were candidates' family or campaign staff, some where PTA volunteers staffing the event, two were with the DTM, and one was from the local blogosphere (guess who). Perhaps a dozen fit none of these categories, and were there, one assumes, to learn about the candidates and issues, or at least to cheer for their favorite candidates or issues.

The local PTA (or PTSA, I lose track) sponsored the event, as it has in the past. They dubbed it "Politics and Punch." (I saw the punch bowl but did not sample the punch.) As the PTA, and perhaps because of some fortuitous calendaring, they had access to the evening's venue, the School Board's chamber. It is comfortable and well suited to such events.

Kevin Barnes moderated this panel discussion, which is a difficult task in several ways. (I speak from experience.) I thought in some ways he displayed his inexperience, as I myself have surely done. Still -- and despite announcing at the beginning that he didn't know what he was doing -- he managed to achieve some important objectives. The obvious one is, he ended the event on time. Less obviously and more importantly, he stayed out of the way enough that the evening was about the candidates and officials, not the moderator, and he did a good job of allowing some spontaneity and reasonable follow-up comments (and questions). Moreover, he did both of these excellent things without ever losing control of the event. And when it was absolutely necessary, for the sake of time, he shut down a discussion and moved on to a new topic.

We might divide the panelists into two categories: those whose names are on a ballot in November, and those whose names are not. On the ballot are these, all American Fork City Council candidates:

  • Sherry Kramer (part-term incumbent, running for a full four-year term)
  • Shirl Lebaron (one-term incumbent, running for a full term)
  • Jason Porter (challenger, running for a full term)
  • Dale Gunther (half-term incumbent, running unopposed for another half-term)

Four-term incumbent Rick Storrs was not present; no explanation was offered.

The other officials present were these:

  • American Fork City Councilor Heidi Rodeback, known here as MFCC (halfway through a four-year term)
  • Alpine School Board member Chrissy Hanneman (represents Highland and Alpine, mostly)
  • Alpine School Board member Tim Osborn (represents American Fork, principally)
  • Alpine School District Assistant Superintendent Rob Smith
  • Utah State Board of Education member Mark Cluff (represents Alpine and Wasatch School Districts)
  • State Representative John Dougall (much of American Fork and some neighboring areas)
  • State Representative Ken Sumsion (a small part of American Fork and parts west)

The questions came, at least in principle, from three sources. First, I saw Mr. Barnes with small plastic bags of questions, neatly typed on small slips of paper. These presumably came from PTA meetings, since it was a PTA event. Second, the audience was invited to submit questions on three-by-five cards. I don't know how many did. Third, several questions, especially follow-up questions, came directly from the audience.

I'll save the questions that were actually asked and answered for the next two posts and, just for the fun of it, tell you the three questions I submitted.

For all city council candidates: Do you think the City would fare better with a well-qualified, professional city administrator? (This is a painful question in some quarters; I wanted to see who, if anyone, would say what, if anything.)

For all school district officials: Do you agree with the superintendent's (Dr. Vern Henshaw's) public statement that parents who care about their children's math instruction are "extremists"? (I didn't want the school district officials being too comfortable with their home-court advantage, and I wanted to learn about them in a hurry, since I only know one of them at all.)

For the state legislators: Please comment on the possibility of the state legislature indexing certified (property) tax rates to inflation, so cities don't have an automatic revenue cut every year equal to the inflation rate. (This question is far too geek, or wonk, and I'd probably reject it if I were moderating, but I wanted to raise the issue when City officials and state legislatures were present together.)

Such a large, diverse group of panelists poses some difficulties, when there are complex issues to be discussed; there are significant trade-offs involved with every possible format for such an event. In this case, mixing officials from city, state, and schools was unusual but reasonably effective, and mixing some who are currently running with some who are not made the evening more lively and informative. For example, putting school officials and legislators in the same room to discuss vouchers was very interesting, and putting City officials and school officials in the same room may actually have been productive on a point or two.

At the end of the event, Mr. Barnes graciously thanked the panelists for "putting up with the crap" they receive in such abundance when campaigning for and serving in public office. Then many from the audience and a number of the officials and candidates lingered for as much as half an hour, talking one-on-one and in small groups about a variety of issues. In some ways this may have been the most valuable part of the evening for some.

Next, American Fork City candidates and issues.

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