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Monday, November 2, 2009
My View of American Fork's Mayoral Candidates

Well, most of it. There's no endorsement here, just a prediction. It comes after I list issues which I find useful or not in distinguishing between the two candidates.

Over and over again, in this election season, I've been asked about American Fork's mayoral race. For whom will I vote, and why? Who do I think will win?

Two days ago I endorsed two city council candidates here at the blog, but I will not be endorsing a mayoral candidate. I will tell you some of my thoughts on the subject; perhaps that will help you make your own choice, if you haven't already. First, I will list several things which do not usefully separate the candidates in my mind. Then I will list a few thing which could have separated them, but don't. Finally, I will mention two things which do separate them, at least for me.

By the way, someone asked how the candidates stack up against those ten principles I've been discussing off and on over the past few weeks under the title, "If You Want My Vote." If I score each mayoral candidate according to the list, ignoring the last item about October surprises (because the campaigns are not over), and giving each candidate either no points, half a point, or a full point on each of the other nine items, both candidates score either 8.5 or 9.0 out of 9.0 possible points. These are credible candidates.

Because both incumbent Mayor Heber Thompson and challenger James Hadfield are, by my criteria, well-qualified candidates, I can look at issues and personalities and try to decide whom I would prefer as a civic and political leader.

Criteria that Are Not Useful

Some of these are important; in these the candidates are indistinguishable, at least to me. Some of them are completely irrelevant, so I don't care where the candidates are the same of different.

  • Geography: One candidate lives one block from me; the other lives across town. I don't care.
  • Religious Affiliation and Activity: Both are LDS (Mormon), and both are "active," as insiders typically define the word, in terms of attendance, participation, and service. There is no essential difference here. If there were, either in affiliation or activity, I would still find it to be irrelevant, where my vote is concerned. (I worry a little that this may be a minority view in Utah.) 
  • Church Leadership Experience: Both have a significant amount. Not only are the minor differences irrelevant; the whole subject is irrelevant. Often enough, good or excellent church leaders make inferior political or civic leaders, because skills, styles, and experience aren't fully portable from the ecclesiastical realm to the civic and political realm. Some of the best leaders never reach "high" office in the Church; many of the best people don't. A resume of LDS Church leadership simply does not buy my vote.
  • Education: I'm a big fan of education. But one candidate here has a Stanford MBA, and the other has an engineering degree and is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As a qualification for elective office, I'm calling it a toss-up.
  • Personality and Temperament: These are important the two mayoral candidates differ somewhat, but they're both in the ballpark. Each is capable of rubbing others, including me, the wrong way once in a while, but more often than not, I like them just fine. Both have strong personalities; both are gentleman. I see no useful distinction here.
  • Family: Each is married and has been for a long time. I know and respect both wives. Each has children and grandchildren; I know some of the children. Fidelity might be politically relevant if either had a problem with it, but neither does. I don't find fertility to be relevant, and even if I did, it's basically a toss-up in this case.
  • Age: Both are old enough to be grandfathers. Both are retired enough to devote whatever time they choose to the office of mayor. Both are healthy enough not to have been dissuaded from running by their wives. There's no distinction here for me.
  • Integrity: Integrity is crucial in an elected official. It's just not useful in distinguishing these two candidates. They both have it. Both are also intelligent, industriousness, and personally generous, among other virtues, and each has a sense of humor even now, in the last days of a political campaign. (I know. I've checked lately.)
  • Hair: Thompson has a great deal more hair than Hadfield, but I don't care either way. People who do care should spend Tuesday at the salon and avoid the polls.
  • Special Interest Ties: If these existed, they might be relevant, but, as far as I know, neither candidate has any such ties. Nor am I aware of anything in either candidate's activities that even vaguely resembles corruption.
  • Incumbency and Its Spin-offs: The incumbent gets more credit and more blame also also has an advantage in speaking of issues in detail, having handled them day in and day out. I am willing to handicap the candidates accordingly, and I am not conscious of any effect this distinction has on my vote. (No doubt I would feel differently if one of those blameworthy issues were my own, or if I thought intimations of secret skulduggery were warranted.)

Criteria Which Could Have Been Useful, but Aren't

They could have been, that is, if one or the other candidate had chosen to make them useful.

  • The 2008 Property Tax Increase: I was cranky about it, too. I suspect it will inspire a lot of anti-incumbent votes on Tuesday. But challenger Hadfield not distanced himself clearly from incumbent Thompson on this issue. Moreover, the mayor doesn't even vote on such things, unless there's a tie, which there wasn't in 2008. Obviously, he has some influence, but the city councilors are all adults; they vote for themselves.
  • The Failed 2008 Bond Issue Proposals: The mayor doesn't actually vote on such things, either, unless there's a tie, which there wasn't. It was technically a majority of the city council which voted to put five bond issues on the same ballot during a growing economic recession and in a presidential election year. But the people voted them down -- all of them. Furthermore, when asked if they would handle it situation differently now, with the benefit of hindsight, both candidates said essentially the same thing: They might have been inclined toward just one or two bond issue proposals, not five, and one of those would have been for the cemetery. If there were any axe to grind here at all, for me, it would be what I saw as the bond proponents' stubborn refusal last summer to take counsel from people who know the politics of passing bond issues. But for some reason I don't find this motivating my choice between the candidates. Others do find this decisive and will vote accordingly. Still others are angry now because they think they voted against the projects which the bond issues would have funded, not merely against specific proposals to fund the projects, and now they see some of those projects in progress -- as they see things -- in defiance of their vote.
  • Pressurized Irrigation: Mayor Thompson deserves credit for his role in moving pressurized irrigation forward. It is necessary. It is a decade or two overdue and comes at a much higher cost, because past leaders studied and talked some, but did not act. So the water bills some people are complaining about are not really any incumbent candidate's fault. In one sense, they are previous leaders' fault. In another sense, they are the people's fault, for not insisting on a more timely remedy to a completely predictable situation. In a third sense, they are the fault of economics, because the higher rates reflect more accurately the actual long-term cost of supplying water to the city. One reason bills were low before is that we were paying only the short-term costs of getting water today, not the full, equally real, long-term costs of maintaining, expanding, and replacing a city water system. Ordinarily, all related discontent, justifiably or otherwise, would fall on Thompson, the incumbent. But Hadfield has been part of the City's operations, too, so some of the complainers who've talked to me have apportioned him his share of their blame (again, justifiably or otherwise).
  • Delinquent Road Maintenance: This problem is older than Mayor Thompson's tenure, and the pressurized irrigation project which has occupied his term made it prudent postpone action to resolve the problem, since that project has involved digging up all the roads anyway. Road maintenance outside Hadfield's purview at the Engineer's office. Both now emphasize the importance of making road maintenance a very high ongoing priority, as soon as the pressurized irrigation project is finished.

To be sure, the vote on Tuesday may be a direct reaction to a tax increase and five failed bond issue proposals, or the fruit of discontent with pressurized irrigation (bills, roads, or otherwise) or road maintenance. But the actual mayoral campaign, based on the candidates' statements, hasn't really been about those subjects at all. They've talked about them a lot, but they have basically said the same things. These issues will not determine my vote.

If you're thinking that I haven't left much that might be useful in determining my vote, you're right. There are numerous important issues on which the two candidates essentially agree. There are two on which they disagree.

Useful: Pursuing American Fork's Interests with Other Governments

At the risk of simplifying and possibly exaggerating, I note that it's possible to argue that making some concessions to get along with our neighbors is good for government and for life generally; this seems generally to have been Thompson's posture during his term. It's possible to argue that we ought to dig in our heels more and not let Pleasant Grove, Highland, UDOT, or others take advantage of us; this is Hadfield's position.

You might agree with Hadfield that Thompson to some degree gave away the store in a border negotiation with Pleasant Grove, in water-related dealing with Highland (as city council candidate Jess Green, not Hadfield himself, claims), and in working with UDOT on the location of Vineyard Connector. Or you might think the outcomes were reasonable, Or you might prefer your local politics to be calm and conciliatory, insofar as possible, finding these things not worth fighting over. You might think it's time to dig in our heels a little more.

If you really do care about this issue, Hadfield is your dig-in-the-heels candidate, and Thompson is your calm-and-conciliatory candidate -- though on any given issue, they might quite easily switch roles. They're both mature, intelligent adults, and neither is one-dimensional.

Useful: Full-Time Mostly-Volunteer Mayor or Part-Time Mayor and Full-Time City Administrator?

By statute American Fork has a part-time mayor, who receives a small stipend, and a full-time, professional city administrator, who would be underpaid at $100,000 per year in the current market. Before Thompson took office, the city council showed the city administrator the door; strictly speaking, he was not replaced. Some of his responsibilities fell on a chief of staff and a budget officer whom Mayor Ted Barratt managed to put in place without making them subject to approval by the city council. In effect, however, Mayor Thompson has assumed the city manager's role, for the most part.

On one hand, Thompson asserts his executive experience and cites the savings to the City in salary and benefits as he works full-time to run the City. He receives only a very modest stipend based on part-time service. He considers himself fully capable of managing both the full-time managerial and the part-time mayoral role.

On the other hand, this is the big reason why Hadfield is running. He thinks city management -- which he has watched as an insider -- has suffered. He says increased efficiency of several kinds under an effective city manager would more than offset the cost. He thinks we should comply with our own ordinance, or change it if the present system is what we really want.

I dislike shoe shopping, but I have to do some soon, so how about this metaphor? If you think the cheaper Thompson shoes are just as good, or are not as good but still a good deal at the price, you'll be inclined to vote for Thompson. If you think the Hadfield shoes, which are more expensive up front, are the wisest purchase in the long run, you'll vote for Hadfield.

Whoever wins the mayoral race, we'll find out what the city council officially thinks of this issue next year, when either Hadfield presents a city manager for the council's approval, or Thompson doesn't. Either way, if the council is not happy, some political hardball could ensue.

Parting Thoughts

So now you know which issues loom large for me in this race, and which issues don't. I fully expect most voters to care less about my issues and more about things I've said don't help me decide in this case, such as tax increases. If I must guess, I think Hadfield will win, and the margin won't be particularly narrow. I don't think Ed Cameron's endorsement of Thompson will be enough to overcome what seems to be widespread discontent with the incumbent. But bear in mind that I have no polling data (primary results don't help much), so I'm just guessing. We'll know tomorrow night if I'm right or wrong.

However you choose to vote, and for whatever reasons, and unless you voted early, don't forget to vote Tuesday. As you do so, you might take a moment to reflect on a happy circumstance: these two mayoral candidates are good people and credible candidates. Both of them. That doesn't always happen in politics.

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