Monday, October 17, 2005
Meet the Remaining Candidates, PTA Style, Part I
On Friday evening about 70 people, not including candidates on the stage, listened to two hours of questions and answers at American Fork Junior High. The local PTA sponsored this meet-the-candidates event, and they got a bunch of things right.
Notably, local legislator John Dougall is an excellent moderator. I thought I was pretty clever months ago when I suggested him to someone as a moderator for such events, but it turns out I was only seeing the obvious. He's moderating another such evening in American Fork (for the Chamber of Commerce) and two more in Highland, before Election Day. He gets the job done pleasantly, intelligently, and without excess verbiage or ceremony. He knows he's not supposed to be the center of attention. He didn't seem to be on an ego trip, and he didn't make any long speeches of his own.
The format was more merciful to audience and candidates alike than it sometimes is at these events. Mayoral candidates had 30, 60, or 90 seconds to answer, depending on the question, not two minutes for every question. Shorter times allow more questions, besides being less likely to put the audience to sleep. It took the candidates a few minutes to settle comfortably into the variable time limits, but they did.
On one hand, a larger audience would have been nice. On the other, if the audience had been much larger, and therefore correspondingly noisier, we'd have been in trouble. The sound system at the AFJH auditorium is poor. It was often less work to understand the candidates who spoke up without the microphone than it was to understand the ones who used it. Either way, if the audience had not been very quiet, hearing and understanding the moderator and candidates would have been a problem.
In general, the answers were of much higher quality than before the primary. There are at least three reasons for this. First, a lot of the less articulate candidates were weeded out by the primary. Second, we're further into the campaign, and the rookie campaigners in particular have gained valuable experience putting their message into words. Third, most of the candidates have refined and focused their messages during the campaign, so they spoke more clearly and forcefully.
The first hour was for mayoral candidates Heber Thompson and Shirl LeBaron. I still maintain that we have as strong a field of mayoral candidates as a small city has a right to hope for. One candidate or the other will lose in November, but I think the people will likely win either way.
Still, I was critical of both Thompson and LeBaron after their first meet-the-candidates event, just before the primary election. Both struggled there to convey a clear, focused message, particularly about downtown revitalization. Then Thompson was far from doing justice to his fairly strong position on that theme; he tended to wander and to get caught up in peripheral issues. For his part, last month, LeBaron essentially pointed a large caliber handgun at his foot and began pulling the trigger. (He finished the job with a mailing that hit mailboxes the following day.) It's not that his message wasn't basically clear; it's that he conveyed a message far different from what I think he intended. Both candidates were noticeably better tonight, both clearer and more continuously on message.
I took a lot of notes, but I don't have a tape or transcript of the event, so I won't try to quote any candidate directly. I've mulled over various approaches for this report. I may be crazy, but I've settled on trying to give as much of a play-by-play as my admittedly incomplete notes will allow. That makes for a long post; feel free to skip any subjects you don't care about. In some cases, I will note that I liked one candidate's answer better than the other's, but in many cases they were evenly matched.
Be advised that I did not write down the questions word for word, I just noted their topics. I have taken those topics and recast them into questions, as accurately as my uneven memory allows.
If anyone cares to comment on what I missed or misinterpreted, so much the better. There's a link for submitting comments way down at the bottom of this lengthy narrative.
Thompson talked about the need to solve some administrative, fiscal, and other problems and noted his impressive management credentials (GE, IBM, LDS Church, Stanford MBA), suggesting that they suit him particularly well to face the City's current challenges. LeBaron, who currently serves on the City Council, talked about the importance of continuity. He mentioned his service on the Utah League of Cities and Towns Legislative Policy Committee and in similar roles. He talked about having tightened the City's belt, thus avoiding tax increases. He took up the familiar theme of needing to concentrate most on the most essential city services, and he spoke of the need for an open and inviting City government, which welcomes residents and businesses in a helpful and professional manner. (This is a higher-profile issue now than when the campaign began.) In light of the fact that LeBaron is already an elected City official and Thompson is not, I think the opening statements were essentially a draw. But I was glad to hear LeBaron's emphasis of open government and professional demeanor.
What Is the Role of the Mayor?
The Mayor is the City's chief executive officer and the (usually) non-voting leader of the City Council. He sets direction, builds consensus, gets the rest the City to buy into a coherent vision (wouldn't that be nice?). Yada, yada, yada. These are good, intelligent candidates. They know what the mayor's job is. This was a draw.
Enforcing Laws and Regulations
One of the weakest of my suggested questions found its way into the evening. It asked for their view of this statement: "If we have a law, it should be enforced reasonably and fairly. If we want to enforce it, but cannot do so reasonably and fairly, we should amend it. If we are unwilling to enforce a law, we should repeal it, so that law-abiding residents have at least equal privileges with scofflaws." (They left off the bit about law-abiding residents and scofflaws.) My own basic concern is that we have a lot of ordinances, including zoning and nuisance ordinances, which the City currently is somewhat reluctant to enforce. If we're not going to enforce them reasonably, I think we should amend or repeal them. (Obviously, we need zoning ordinances, etc., so I'm really suggesting we enforce them.) Having laws we don't enforce puts the law-abiding, who still obey the law, at a disadvantage in comparison to the scofflaws, who do not obey. Both Thompson and LeBaron came down in favor of enforcing reasonable laws, fixing broken laws, etc., but neither candidate nailed this one - by which I guess I mean, neither candidate successfully read my mind. Neither candidate mentioned nuisance ordinances, either. 'Twas a minimally impressive draw.
Will There Be Continued Big-Box Development?
LeBaron aptly noted that big-box development (particularly The Meadows, on the west side of American Fork) will stop when the general plan's allowance for such development is fulfilled. (Let's hope it does.) Thompson suggested that the City made decisions related to big-box development on the west side without seeing the full picture, that is, without considering such things as the impact on traffic. (I'm not sure I buy that specific example.) He did note that such development is not inherently bad (I agree), and spoke of the need for businesses downtown which complement the big boxes, rather than competing with them (and being squashed). At first, an edge to LeBaron, but Thompson pulled even with intelligent words about downtown.
How Would You Improve the City's Finances?
Thompson noted that the City's debt-to-income ratio is deteriorating, boding ill for future attempts to borrow at low rates. He emphasized the importance of new development to bring in more revenue. LeBaron noted that the City has a healthy cash reserve (for which he takes some credit), though a rather heavy load of general obligation bonds. He noted that we have the bonding capacity for pressurized irrigation. For me, there was no clear winner on this question.
Looking at the Current Term, What Would You Like to Change in Your Administration?
LeBaron would like to see better communication, less of a sense that deals are being made in back rooms instead of in the open, better support and more involvement of residents on committees and task forces, and better-noticed meetings. (The last may have been a response to a little caper at City Council last week, where the Mayor apparently slipped a controversial item onto an amended agenda at the last legal minute, so it could be handled without the inconvenience of extensive public interest and comment.) Thompson noted that we have lost our focus on the basic needs (health, safety, etc.) and neglected basic infrastructure. Our police force is underpaid and often has to buy its own equipment, and we have neglected the matter of sidewalks. I liked both responses; no clear winner here.
The EASY Program
Someone raised the question of the EASY program again, which attempts to curb teenage drinking of alcohol. No candidate favors teenage drinking, of course. But I wonder if EASY isn't more of a symbolic statement, rather than a practically useful thing, in American Fork. (I always wonder this about such things.) Thompson noted, inevitably, that teenage drinking generally is a serious problem, and he's against it. If EASY will actually help us address the problem, he's for it, but he would want to be cautious, due to concerns similar to what I have stated. LeBaron noted that in 2002 the City Council voted against EASY, on the police chief's recommendation. The sense was that the costs it would impose on businesses were not justified, since our own existing ordinances are adequate. In other words, the two essentially danced in the general vicinity of the same position. But LeBaron wielded the incumbent's advantage of being better informed, and Thompson tried too hard not to seem opposed to something that opposed teen drinking. (My enemy's enemy is my friend?) Slight advantage to LeBaron.
LeBaron favors it; we should have done it long ago. The Council approved it about two years ago. The engineering is done. There will likely be a general obligation bond put to vote early next year. If we act now, we can require new development to include the infrastructure at the developers' cost, not the taxpayer's. LeBaron does not favor a treatment plant, for a variety of reasons, the most interesting of which is that our water would not taste as good.
Thompson did not address pressurized irrigation directly, but presented a new idea, something called Aquifer Storage Recovery. Apparently, you build a reservoir over your aquifer, and more water filters down to the aquifer, being purified on the way and increasing your underground water supply. This works nicely for Brigham City, would likely attract a lot of federal funding, and ought to be looked at for American Fork. (My questions: Is there room for a reservoir over our aquifer? And if there is, would the environmental lobby allow it to be built? They're anti-reservoir, too, you know. I'm not saying we shouldn't consider this new idea, or shouldn't at least have considered it two years ago.)
LeBaron wins this question.
Why Is the City in the Internet Business?
Thompson said he'd prefer that the City didn't compete with private industry, but we already own the broadband system, so we need to see what is best to do with it. He wants to see a solid business plan. The system lost $1.5 million last year, which presumably is bad. (But without the solid business plan Thompson wants to see, we don't know whether that's good or bad, do we? A lot of new businesses take a while to get into the black.) LeBaron sees it as a public utility (as do I), part of our infrastructure, and noted that leasing or selling a lot of our unused fiber promises a lot of income in the future. He speaks strongly in favor of the system, which is available at some office buildings he owns. As for your (dubiously) humble blogger, I want to see the solid business plan of which Thompson speaks, but, for me, LeBaron wins this question.
How Would Your Administration Bring Renewed Pride and Dignity to American Fork?
LeBaron said he has a vision and an action plan. We need to attend to our nuisance ordinances. We need to care for our infrastructure; he specifically mentioned sidewalks and said the City could upgrade two to four blocks of sidewalk per year without fiscal hardship. And he'd like us to have a municipal court; apparently, about $70,000 in fees annually go to the state (or county?) because we don't. (I wonder, is this the complete fiscal picture? I doubt that $70,000 annually would fully fund our own municipal court. I'd like to hear more of this idea.) Thompson would like to go downtown and walk into a nice civic center plaza, well-landscaped, with the appropriate ADA-mandated sidewalks. He'd like to see dressed-up storefronts. He'd like to see our parks completed. He'd like to see a center for the arts. He also noted that all this costs money, which is part of the reason we need to get our fiscal house in order, by increasing revenues, reducing debt, and being better stewards of the public trust. Who wins this question is a tough call for me; I think combining the two candidates' answers would make for an excellent vision. So . . . on substance, a toss-up. But overall I give the question to Thompson by a nose, for style - to which, unfortunately, I cannot do justice here.
Where Do You Stand on Supporting the Arts?
Thompson wants American Fork to be the arts center of northern Utah County. He sings in the community chorus and is (as am I) a former trumpeter. His heart and soul are in the arts. LeBaron noted that he has supported the Arts Council budget, which he said is $20,000 this year - an order of magnitude larger than the arts budget of West Valley City, the second-most populous city in Utah. There's a lot to do, but resources are limited; he sees a substantial roll for non-profits. No winner here; it's a toss-up.
What About the Harrington School?
LeBaron noted that this "wonderful asset" is privately owned, and, last he heard (two years ago), it's owner, Dr. Bell, does not want to sell. He doesn't think the building should be razed (more or less the opposite of "raised"). If and when Dr. Bell wishes to sell it, the City should acquire it, if possible. (This may be what LeBaron wanted to say before the primary, but it's a lot clearer and more satisfactory than what he actually said. Some will see this as simply telling the voters what he now begins to realize they want to hear. Some will judge that he finally succeeded at communicating his own, reasonable vision for downtown, after badly bungling it last month. Some may even suppose that his view really has evolved somewhat in the last month, as he has realized how important the Harrington School is to many members of the community. I'm on record thinking that his message was out of control before the primary, so I have to think that a lot of the change is simply getting that message under control and saying what he really means. Maybe there's a bit of a conversion happening too; I don't know. I suspect that he's not just pandering to the voters; at this point in this campaign, he probably realizes that politically he cannot afford the slightest whiff of insincerity. So I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he made up a lot of ground on this question Friday evening.)
Thompson noted that he represented the Arts Council in trying to get the City to see the vision of what the Harrington School could be. (I was on a task force with much of the Arts Council two years ago, when they themselves, inexplicably, could not see that vision; I wonder if it was Thompson or another major player who performed the minor miracle of getting the Arts Council to see the vision.) Responding to LeBaron's comments on other occasions, Thompson noted that the argument that donations should be raised before the City commits partially to fund a Harrington project has things backwards; outside donor money is not likely to appear until the City makes a commitment. And he corrected the common claim that he and others asked for $2.7 million of the so-called RDA funds for the Harrington; they asked for $1 million. Thompson's support for rehabilitating the Harrington School is well known and long standing. He was a tad more articulate about it in this setting than he has been elsewhere, I think, but in general there was nothing new from him on this subject tonight.
Thompson wins the question, but LeBaron was good, too. Both fixed the problems they had last month, when Thompson was unfocused and unpersuasive, and LeBaron was far behind him and running in the other direction, to make a moot point about RDA funds.
How Would You Help Us Feel Safe in Our Neighborhoods?
Thompson noted that he has no experience in law enforcement. (It's nice to hear a candidate admit he doesn't know something; I wish a lot of them had done that on the EASY program.) He said the police department needs some clear objectives and standards. (Do they not have them already? If not, I'd have to agree.) He emphasized the importance of public safety and said he needs more information about it than he currently has. LeBaron said public safety is the City's first priority. He said we start by getting an excellent police chief. (He is on the search committee.) We need neighborhood patrols (I think that means Neighborhood Watch) and councils (Neighbors in Action?). We need additional officers. We need to improve our street lighting. I award this question to LeBaron, but only half-heartedly. Both candidates missed a golden opportunity to talk about how effective nuisance abatement in a neighborhood relatively inexpensively discourages all sorts of criminal activity in that neighborhood. (Nuisance abatement is not, fundamentally, a beautification issue; it's a public safety issue.)
Tell Us Details of Your Plan for the City's Financial Health
LeBaron said we can save money by looking at our purchasing policies. Do we really need a thing? Can the old one be repaired? Can we do without? Can we cooperate with another jurisdiction and purchase a needed thing jointly? He noted that we should build our cash reserves, which have already grown, of late (to his credit, he says). We should recruit businesses and forge advantageous public / private / nonprofit partnerships. The City needs a grant-writer. And we may be able to do more in the way of consolidating employee duties and cross-training. Thompson highlighted the need for aggressive economic development. We need to make the City easy to do business with. We need a combined economic development specialist and grant writer. We need to learn what resources are available to us and exploit them; the squeaky wheel gets the grease, or in this case the grant money, and we should be the squeaky wheel. For me, this was a toss-up.
The Meadows Development is Great, but Was It Fair for the City to Spend $3 Million There?
Thompson said we paid $3.8 million in incentives, but that we'll start to see some of that come back as tax revenues. He wonders if those incentives were necessary; perhaps the developers would have settled for a deal more favorable to the City. He thinks the City needs to use a professional consultant in such negotiations, to make sure we're not leaving money on the table. LeBaron noted that he was not a member of the City Council when these matters came to a vote, but said he would not have favored the concessions. He said there is a range of available incentives we could offer businesses, including downtown businesses, such as variances and utility waivers. For me, another toss-up.
How Would You Ensure that Commercial Development Does Not Encroach on Residential Areas East of 900 West and North of State Street?
LeBaron promised to take a strong stand, to enforce zoning rules. He mentioned his service on the Boundary Commission, which seems relevant, since some of the commercial development in question is actually in Lehi. Thompson mentioned that he is on the Planning Commission, and then he talked accordingly. He noted that we need to protect a transitional area between the commercial and residential zones. I give the question to Thompson on the strength of better technical details, and for not promising to "take a strong stand." (Sorry, I don't know how a candidate is supposed to say that he will take a strong stand, if I won't let him actually say he'll take a strong stand. It just struck me as one of those things politicians say in campaigns, mean at the time, and then neglect to do. Perhaps a candidate can protest too much, you know?)
LeBaron said he has been on the City Council for two years, long enough to gain valuable experience, but not enough to become one of the "good old boys." He has stood up to developers, but has been reasonable with them. He wants a clean and inviting community for residents and businesses. He has a proven track record. He returns e-mails and phone calls. (True! And refreshing!) He has proven that he can build consensus. He is experienced with regional planning and has been involved with the Mountainlands Association of Governments. He already has a relationship with the other mayors in the area. He can make change. He wonders where the money for all of Thompson's plans will come from. He's a lawyer, and he knows finance.
Thompson said that in him American Fork would get a full-time mayor for a part-time price. This is his first attempt at public office. We need to refocus on the basics, the priorities that made American Fork great. The health, safety, and welfare of residents come first. We need long-range strategic planning, and we need to test proposals against that plan. We need to manage tax dollars as well as we possibly can. We need to improve the timeliness and effectiveness of decision making. We need better staff work, a better effort to insure that the City Council has the information it needs. We need to attend better to human resources issues.
My own assessment of the closing statements is the same as my evaluation of the candidates generally, including their performance at this event. These are two excellent candidates; both are well qualified. I like most of what they say. In either case I could live with the few things I don't really like - as long as LeBaron's talk about downtown, nuisance abatement, and the Harrington School was sincere, and as long as Thompson, when he finally sees the business plan we need, sees that in the long run the broadband system is a good thing for American Fork. (Please! Don't take my broadband!)
For whom should you vote? I can't say. If you have a particular, pet issue, which matters more to you than all the rest put together, and if one candidate pleases you more on that issue, you should vote for that one. I don't have such an issue. I am left to judge matters less tangible: Which candidate more completely means what he says? Assuming both are sincere, which candidate can best implement what he envisions? Which of the two is the better public face to put on the City (and the city)?
Overall, I can't say who won the hour as whole, either. Both were strong. For their efforts at a similar event before the primary, I gave Thompson a B- and LeBaron a B, and wasn't really thrilled with either of them. Both did much better tonight. They both get A's. I think each accomplished something he needed to. On one hand, LeBaron made up some lost ground and began to undo some of the damage he did himself just before the primary. On the other, Thompson held his own and made his case.
Copyright 2005 by David Rodeback.