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Friday, September 4, 2009
Notes on Meeting the Candidates in American Fork, Part 2: Mayoral Candidates

Much of what the mayoral candidates said and plenty of commentary from me along the way.

About the Following

The previous post offered some general musings on last evening's meet-the-candidates event at Barratt Elementary in American Fork, which the Rotary Club sponsored. Here follow some notes and thoughts about each mayoral candidate. The format of the evening allowed for a five-minute statement by each candidate. I report here much (not all) of what was said in those statements, with scattered morsels from one-on-one conversations afterwards. I also intrude my own commentary quite frequently. My intention is to be clear below about what is reporting and what is commentary; the reporting is italicized below; the commentary is indented.

You may want to bear in mind that that some personal biases may color my perceptions. I'm acquainted with two of the mayoral candidates and consider them friends, and I have been known to assist or advise a friend's campaign from time to time. That said, I flatter myself that I am capable of some degree of objectivity in my perceptions. In any case, you've been warned.

I took a small digital recorder to the meeting and recorded all the candidates' statements. (It's a public meeting; no one's permission is required.) The recording isn't good enough to post on the Web -- nor did I expect or intend it to be -- but it's good enough to allow me to review what the candidates said as I prepare this post.

I'll mention the candidates in the order in which they spoke, which I believe was the result of some exercise in randomness.

James H. Hadfield

Mr. Hadfield spoke first and began on a light note, saying that people have been asking him if he's any relation to a notorious local character (my phrase), one J. H. Hadfield.

You might say the two are related, since they're the same guy. That's actually important, as I will try to explain from personal experience. "The Colonel" lives not far from me, and I worked closely with him for several years in an ecclesiastical setting. My recurring impression through those years was that everyone who has lived for more than a few years in American Fork -- or for that matter, anywhere in the north half of Utah County -- knows J. H. Hadfield. I'm sure it isn't actually everyone, but it's a lot of folks. He seems to be both well known and highly regarded.

He emphasized his long experience not only living in American Fork, but working for the City, including the better part of two decades in the Engineering Department and several years on the Planning Commission, among other roles.

He said that the City needs leadership that will stubbornly defend the City's interests in dealing with developers, other cities, and other levels of government.

He said the City needs serious long-term planning, so that serious problems aren't neglected for years, until they become emergencies and require a large tax increase.

My own list of such situations would include pressurized irrigation (finally handled, ten years and $40 milion late), road maintenance (an  open wound), and cemetery land (still unresolved). None of these is new; the current administration inherited them almost four years ago.

He said we need City leadership to have "a decent respect" for residents' and citizens' tax burdens, to value residents' welfare as highly as businesses', and to communicate candidly and respectfully with residents.

This repeated focus on taxes, looking both back and ahead in time, is inevitable in a challenger this year, given last year's tax increase, recently increased water and sewer fees, almost-mandatory recycling, unresolved but potentially expensive road maintenance and cemetery issues, and the reduced tax revenues which accompany a recession.

He talked about finishing the City's planning for development south of I-15, so that plans are fully in place by the time developers approach the City for approval of their plans.

This is a technical issue which will play well with at least some insiders and the well-informed, I think. But if it ever catches the average voter's imagination, it will long after the boat has already left the dock.

Hadfield said nothing directly about the incumbent's performance in these or other areas, though.

Of course, serious candidates don't choose their topics at random in these situations.

He mentioned protecting the City's investments in infrastructure and in parks and recreation facilities, and suggested the possibility of funding arts programs largely through grants and donations, not taxes.

Hadfield's delivery was intermittently charming and articulate, but at other times he looked too long and too often at his text or his notes (whichever he was using). [Hmm. Is that reporting or commentary?]

The latter is not a deal-breaker for most local voters, I'm sure, and he redeemed a few rough spots with the impression that, as he claims, he really does knows the city, its people, and its government, and has a sense of where to go and how to get there, where Anerican Fork's future is concerned.

Hadfield will likely survive the primary. What happens in November depends largely on his ability to ride the rookie candidate's campaign learning curve (which is not trivial), on his skill in explaining complex issues in simple and motivating terms -- over and over and over again -- and on the depth and breadth of voter discontent with Mayor Thompson's administration. This discontent is much in evidence, but I cannot estimate it reliably. It will finally be quantified only at the polls.

In any case, it's good for government when an incumbent (however good and accomplished) has a decent, intelligent, hard-working challenger with inside knowledge of how things work and different views about how they should work.  The public and the incumbent are more engaged, the right questions tend to get discussed, and sometimes . . .

Well, I won't venture a prediction. I'm notoriously bad at predicting electoral outcomes. Moreover, I haven't finally decided who gets my own vote for mayor in the primary and the general election. People keep asking, but I really have not decided. When I decide, it might just be between me and the punch-card ballot, anyway.

Mayor Heber M. Thompson

I'm not trying to drop names, but Mayor Thompson is also a personal friend, and he and I have worked together on some good things in the community. Here at the blog I have been fairly free with my praise, when I have thought he has done well. I have been free with my criticism of some good things done clumsily or left undone. I don't expect any elected official, even a good one, to please me all the time or to be good at everything. On a personal level -- do you mind if I throw in a politically irrelevant statistic in honor of an election year? -- he's, ahem, the only mayor of a Utah city to show up at the University Hospital early this year to visit MFCC and our daughter.

Incumbency has its advantages, ranging from better name recognition and a more thorough day-to-day involvement in the issues, to the fact that you can save some money by reusing the signs you bought for the last campaign. But there are also disadvantages to incumbency. The chief one is that you have a record which can be weighed against what you promised in the last campaign and what you say in the current one; that record always includes some unavoidable decisions which pleased some and angered others. By contrast, when a challenger proclaims his principles and promises to do this and that, there usually isn't much of a record against which to compare his claims and promises.

Since there is a record, I'll weigh what Mayor Thompson said tonight against that record, at least on some points. It's actually a good record in some important respects, my occasional criticism notwithstanding.

Mayor Thompson said he would like four more years to finish what he has started; this has emerged as a major theme of his campaign.

It's a typical incumbent's argument, but it's not without merit; some things take longer than one election cycle.

He talked about the lean economic times affecting the city, the nation, and many households. We have troubled waters to navigate, he said, and it's not the best time to replace the ship's captain.

It's a point worth considering, though perhaps weakened somewhat by the presence of a challenger with long experience at the City.

He offered a list of his administration's major accomplishments . . .

The first was and should be finally addressing the city's growing water shortage and finding the best and, in the long term, most economical solution, a citywide pressurized irrigation system.

Arguably, he should never have had to address this issue as mayor; it should have been resolved two mayors ago, for less than $10 million instead of about five times that amount.

He mentioned raising police and employee wages; in the process reducing police department turnover from 30 percent to 6 percent (annually, I presume).

This is important and needs to be done again soon, at least for the AFPD, so that we are not, in effect, training other forces' officers at our expense, and so that good, experienced officers will be more likely to stay with the AFPD.

He said that, for the first time, the City now has standards of employee performance, with pay determined by merit. Under his administration the City has also adopted stricter construction standards south of the freeway and intelligent land use.

At the intersection of employee performance and construction standards, you may recall that a hot issue in the campaign four years ago was the building of homes with basements where no basements are allowed, between the freeway and Utah Lake, where the water table is high. This was not so much a problem with the standards then in place as it was a case of someone at the City failing to enforce existing standards.

He said that the City finds out and honors the citizens' priorities, citing as an example the five bond issues which failed last November. In his narrative, the voters were given a choice about some projects which "the citizens and various committees" said are needed or desirable. Knowing their own economic situations, those voters said at the polls that they didn't want any of them, so the City is "not doing anything about" those projects.

He cannot avoid the 2008 tax increase and the five failed bond issues; they are very much on the voters' minds. He needs a narrative, some coherent way to explain what happened. However, this particular narrative is risky, despite its seductive populism.

The first problem is that the question on last November's ballot was whether to fund certain projects by issuing bonds, not whether to do the projects at all. Some of them need to be done anyway and will be done as soon as funds somehow become available. The mayor's chosen narrative has encouraged voters to think otherwise, to think that they were rejecting the projects themselves, not just a proposed method of funding the projects. As a result, some voters are now pretty cranky about seeing, for example, a trail being built in the city this summer (almost entirely with federal funds, by the way). They thought they rejected trails last November, so they think the City is ignoring the voice of the people. This is a misperception, but it's a misperception the mayor's narrative encouraged, and it's enough to cause some anger among voters.

Second, some of the projects involved are well established parts of the City's general plan, not just relatively new proposals from city residents or committees.

A safer narrative might have been to present the proposed bond issues (at least the ones dealing with essential matters already in the plan) in this manner: "These are projects which will eventually need to be funded and completed, for the welfare of the city's residents and businesses. We propose to complete them now, funded by these bond issues. Your choice at the polls is to allow us to proceed with them now, by authorizing the bond issues, or to defer the projects to some future time." Coulda, woulda, maybe shoulda . . .

Moving on, Thompson said, "I'm very strong on economic development." He explained the desirability of this, in terms of City revenues. He said, "We need a strong economic development program.

I'll agree that economic development is very important. Moreover, there is no question in my mind that he has tried to make American Fork a more business-friendly community -- with some success. However, I'm at a loss to point to recent, significant economic development in American Fork that wasn't already under way four years ago. (I'm not the expert here by any means, and I don't keep score. Can you think of some?)

He noted that the "rough seas ahead" involve roads and sidewalks, the rather urgent need for more cemetery land, and the revival of downtown.

I hope to hear and read more discussion of these issues by all three candidates. I think we'll have some for you here soon at LocalCommentary.com.

But there wasn't time to delve into them in a five minute statement, so he didn't try.

Ed Cameron

I was already fairly well acquainted with the other two candidates and their platforms, so I was looking forward to meeting and hearing from Ed Cameron. As it turns out, he is articulate, pleasant, and poised, not to mention tall. I was able to chat with him for a while after the formal part of the meeting. He seems passionate and conscientious. If you get a chance, you should ask him how he came to join the Army; it's a good story he told to a couple of us who lingered.

Cameron said he's running for mayor because "there needs to be a voice for small business." Later, during the informal part of the evening, he explained to me that he's particularly concerned by the woes of businesses along 500 East, since the development of the Meadows on the city's west side began sucking traffic and business away. He did not speak angrily or critically of the "big box" developments . . .

. . . This suggests either intelligence or reasonable political instincts . . .

. . . but he does believe the City needs to pay more attention to the needs of existing and potential small businesses. He named some long-established small businesses in the city which have been hurt "by recent decisions"; later he elaborated somewhat, mentioning water rates in particular.

He suggested that some priorities may need adjustment (my phrase), noting that his children's route to school had poor or missing sidewalks, but passed near a very nice, recently upgraded municipal golf course.

He spoke of his desire to be a good listener and to organize and galvanize the community, and of the need to find ways to bring more revenues to the City. In that context, he mentioned with admiration Pleasant Grove's "Promenade," which includes a farmers' market, among other attractions. He wonders why we couldn't do a similar thing in American Fork.

I'm not prepared to evaluate that idea, but I like the fact that he's thinking outside the present ruts. If he doesn't happen to win the election -- I doubt he will -- perhaps he could be of service and gain some valuable experience with Downtown American Fork, Inc. Some good experience inside the City apparatus might make him an effective, attractive, promising candidate for the future.

He related his experience coaching youth basketball, for both its literal and its metaphorical merits, and spoke of wanting to assemble "a good team at the city" in order to achieve greater economic success.

I later asked him if he's having fun running for mayor. He said that he is.

I know, I know; what else could he say? I believe him anyway.

James Hadfield is challenging Mayor Thompson from the inside, and he'll probably be more effective than Ed Cameron's challenge from the outside. But Cameron is not an altogether unattractive candidate in this field. He seems quite green, politically, and he is unproven in the political arena, but my first impression is that he is reasonably intelligent, and he is in any case a pleasant fellow.

Final Thought (for Now)

Either one or both of the challengers will ultimately lose this election; I suspect that Mayor Thompson still has an advantage in the race. But even a losing campaign is a valuable service, if it's executed well. Issues are raised repeatedly and discussed, and questions are asked and answered to a degree which we do not see in some of our uncontested and nearly-uncontested races. A good challenger's campaign elevates the public awareness of issues and often presses the victors to consider an issue more thoroughly and to see it more comprehensively -- perhaps even differently. Representative democracy works better when candidates have to explain themselves and when the people are attentive and engaged.

I'll be back soon with further notes on the evening.

[To be continued . . .]

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