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Thursday, September 29, 2005
I Met Even More Candidates, Part II (Or Is It V?)

As before, these remarks are not intended as a comprehensive report of two hours of conversation, let alone a complete analysis of the three candidates. They are my own impressions and evaluation, and are inevitably incomplete and somewhat subjective. I doubt that my words will please any of the three; if any cares to rebut, there is the usual link at the end of the article. I have some personal experience with each candidate in one setting or another, and considerable regard for each candidate's skills and attributes. I blogged several weeks ago to the effect that this is a particularly strong field of mayoral candidates - a luxury one does not always have in local (or national) politics.

Councilman Shirl LeBaron is a quasi-incumbent, not to mention the most polished and experienced politician running in American Fork this year. His ability to get votes is proven. He has to be considered the front-runner, and I don't think he would be a bad mayor, in most respects. He handles himself well in settings like tonight's, and he isn't afraid to attack his opponents on the issues. But I am not entirely at ease.

LeBaron scores points with me when he insists that we need development agreements and a design review committee - both common fixtures in other municipalities - to ensure that zoning and building codes, etc., are actually enforced, and to hold developers to the general plan. This is not a small thing, in my book. I also applaud his long-term commitment to and apparent understanding of the broadband system. Blog and all, he is a politician for the 21st century. But, to some extent, his good ideas tonight, like the larger set at his web site, come with a footnote. I wonder, and have hoped for a chance to ask, why he could not lead the City Council to pursue more of his ideas over the past two years, if he is so committed to them. Perhaps I overestimate a single member's ability to move the Council against the opposition or indifference of the mayor; I'm still hoping to hear LeBaron's thoughts on this subject.

LeBaron was at his most passionate and forceful on the subject of downtown revitalization. He came across as strongly opposed to it generally, but I think his firm opposition is really to the specific matter of the City spending money downtown. Somewhat unfairly, on this subject, he set up a straw man and attacked it, rather than responding to his opponents' and others' actual proposals for downtown (and for the historic, dilapidated Harrington School). The straw man is a familiar player in political debates, and his presence in this instance may have no substantive implications for what LeBaron would do as mayor with regard to downtown. In any case, his assessment of the Harrington School suggests that he is picking and choosing details to suit his position, not objectively studying the situation in an effort to accomplish something positive for the city's future. For example, he does not appear to understand that the City's financial commitment necessarily would precede the ability to attract grants for some Harrington-related project; instead, he cites the fact that no such grants have yet been awarded as a compelling reason for the City to avoid a commitment. Putting the cart before the horse is quaint but hardly helpful. On the subject of downtown generally, he insists that no tax dollars will be spent to help private businesses downtown. Unfortunately, no one - not Thompson, not Brown, not Gunther - compelled him to explain why the same stingy logic did not apply to the big box development on the west side, and no one clearly pointed out that the downtown folks have some substantive suggestions for how the City can help downtown without making significant expenditures.

I was involved in some extensive committee work to recommend how the so-called RDA funds would be spent and how priorities would be assigned to various possible arts and recreation facilities. LeBaron pats himself on the back for his involvement in spending that money, but there are two problems with his self-congratulation. First, he and the rest of the City Council twiddled their thumbs long enough before making actual decisions that a fraction of those funds expired and became unavailable - meaning, essentially, they were wasted. Where was he when that was happening? Couldn't the councilman who would be mayor muster enough political pressure to move the City to action before money was lost? Second, he now insists that it would have been illegal to use those funds to purchase the Harrington School. I'm not an attorney, but I've studied all the relevant statutes of which I know, and nothing in them suggests this. Moreover, at no point in all those discussions did I hear him say this, until his mayoral campaign was under way. If it really would have been illegal, and if he knew it, why would he not raise the point to help inform the discussion as it occurred? On one hand, I'd like him to produce a copy of an official finding that it would be illegal, or at least point out the specific laws which make it so - but, on the other hand, it's a moot point, and I suppose candidates cannot be bothered to respond to every little detailed inquiry from pesky bloggers.

Tonight LeBaron mentioned in passing that there are things the City could do to help downtown, including variances and incentives. Again, one wonders, if he means what he says, why hasn't he already pushed for the City to do these things, especially when some of the downtown discussion has involved them? One might be inclined to dismiss this as another council-vs.-mayor situation, but for one glaring fact: It was abundantly clear tonight that Councilman LeBaron does not believe helping downtown helps the city as a whole. More than once he said (again summoning the straw man) that our tax money should be spent to help the whole city, not just a few businesses downtown; this means he does not see the city as a whole as having an interest in an excellent downtown.

If LeBaron is elected, and if he remains unable or unwilling to comprehend how a vibrant downtown is good for the whole city, there can be no reasonable expectation that he will do anything substantial as mayor to revitalize downtown American Fork.

One other impression came to me repeatedly. I don't know whether it's major or minor. Too many times in the past few years, mostly at City Council meetings, I have seen our present mayor respond to criticism or disagreement by getting angry and whiny, and taking over the floor for a 10- to 20-minute, self-righteous, rambling diatribe on how he and the Council have tough decisions to make, and the rest of us ought to appreciate that and not give them any grief. (I'm condensing a lot and paraphrasing a little.)

Cry me a river! Break out the miniature violins! I was shocked and a bit troubled to see how naturally Councilman LeBaron slipped into that childish, manipulative mode tonight. At least he did not slip into it as far or for nearly as long as we have seen the incumbent mayor do.

LeBaron touted his "proven track record" (though his list of accomplishments at his Web site is a tad - but not egregiously - more inflated than the evidence supports), and called himself a "consensus builder." (As to the latter, I'm still willing to be convinced.) He emphasized that he says he will do things, then does them. To some extent, clearly, this is true; to some extent I think it remains unproven - but there is a good probability that he will have every chance to prove it for the next four years.

All in all, LeBaron's was the most effective presentation tonight. Since I seem to be into letter grades tonight, and considering both style (polished but a bit oily) and substance (mostly solid but partly shaky), I give him a "B+."

Heber Thompson is dignified and personable, but, at least at this point, is not a natural politician. That may not be a bad thing. The breadth and depth of his management experience are impressive, and he clearly does his homework - and has done so on numerous current issues, including the earthquake theme which so concerns tonight's organizers. He fluently goes technical on a range of issues, and he is a good deal more coherent and believable when he does so than is the mayor he seeks to replace. I believe he is seeking his first elected office, though he has some useful, recent experience on the Planning Commission .

Like LeBaron, Thompson speaks in favor of a pressurized irrigation system. I suspect that he has the business acumen to see that such a system is implemented in the most reasonable and economical way - and I suspect he could address the broadband system's challenges with similar effect. On the subject of earthquakes, he has been consulting with experts who say the risk of a major quake in Utah County is radically lower than the risk in Salt Lake County, which is, at least to me, a new thought on the issue. (My wife would say, tongue-in-cheek, that the odds that he's right are 50/50: either there will be a major quake or there won't. When she's serious, she's better at probability than that.) Perhaps because he is not yet burdened with annual iterations of the City's budget process, Thompson speaks more and more convincingly than LeBaron about improving the pay and the moral of City employees, including police.

Based on two years of acquaintance, I think highly of Heber Thompson and will most likely vote for him, at least in the primary. But, like Dale Gunther, the other candidate in tonight's event who will get my vote Tuesday, Thompson gets a "B-" from me for tonight's performance. He, too, is heavily involved in Downtown American Fork, Inc., which mostly does not deserve the derision LeBaron displayed for it tonight. Thompson has the talking points to speak clearly and convincingly about what we can do to revitalize downtown, even without major City expenditures, and to refute LeBaron, but he didn't use them. He was not clear or convincing on this issue. He did not stay on message when the topic was downtown; he was like the proverbial Indian (ahem, Native American) chief, who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions.

Thompson got off to a bad start in his opening statement, by stiffly observing that his campaign was essentially invisible (my word) tonight, because he thought the rules prohibited signs and such. Meanwhile, LeBaron's campaign was anything but invisible. (See my comment on signs, etc., at last week's event.)

I do not doubt that Thompson is enough of a leader to excel as mayor. But I am not yet convinced that he is enough of a candidate to get elected against a seasoned, savvy quasi-incumbent with excellent name identification. There is not sufficient anti-incumbent fervor in this election to carry Thompson to victory; he must run an aggressive, positive campaign. This could still happen; he's only halfway through his first political campaign, and he's learning. But for the next few weeks, the learning curve may need to be steeper than it has been.

George Brown is intelligent, experienced, generous, and, no doubt, many other good things. He did not fare well in the 2003 city council race, and I doubt he can get enough votes to survive the primary in this race. But he talked plenty of sense tonight, and was not without a certain charm. If he is eliminated in Tuesday's primary, he will almost certainly be the most capable candidate to be eliminated in the primary.

Brown favors building a treatment plant to turn irrigation water into culinary water, rather than building the pressurized irrigation system favored by his opponents (and approved by the City Council a long time ago). I disagree, but there are some good arguments on his side. In light of his past, especially as regards the Harrington School episode a few years ago, I'm not fully confident of his political judgment. But that might have been an aberration at the time, and, even if it wasn't, it seems like the kind of rude, protracted lesson from which an intelligent man might learn much.

Brown spoke as intelligently and convincingly as Thompson about restoring morale, professionalism, and competitive pay to the City administration. And when the subject of the arts in American Fork was raised, he spoke very realistically and candidly of not being opposed to City support for the arts, but believing that we have other, more basic bills to pay first. Overall, he identified his major issues as water, money, and downtown.

Notably, Brown has attended virtually every City Council meeting since 1993 - for some years (though not lately) as a member of the Council.

Brown's performance tonight was solid and even, with fewer negatives and fewer positives than LeBaron's or Thompson's. I don't think he hurt his own cause at all tonight. I give him a "B."

Look for LeBaron to get the most votes in Tuesday's primary, and Thompson to finish a not-very-close second. If Thompson's and Brown's votes together almost equal LeBaron's, it will be the first sign that we may have a close race in November.

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