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Friday, October 28, 2005
One Last Round with American Fork Mayoral Candidates


Last evening at the Senior Citizens Center in American Fork, mayoral candidates were grilled at the season's final meet-the-candidates event. As last week, when I reported on the last event for city council candidates, my report will not be a play-by-play, but mostly will mix my notes on what was new with my own commentary. So it is deliberately and inevitably incomplete, and selective. I am generally disinclined to repeat what I have observed or reported before. If you find any of this unacceptable, you probably should be attending the events yourself, not relying on some blogger to report them.

The first hour of two featured three rounds of seven-minute statements, followed by a round of six-minute wrap-ups. I pooh-poohed the long statements last week at the event for city council candidates (six candidates, fewer minutes each), but I thought this worked well enough with only two candidates, especially when both are well-versed in the issues. Each candidate chose his own topic or topics for each statement. There weren't really any surprises along the way.

Once again, Keith Richan and Judy Price organized the event, and Richan moderated. I've done both, and both are more work than they appear to be. So thanks are due to these two and their helpers once again. The audience was in the low 30s, not counting the candidates, including a few folks I don't recall seeing at previous events, and some who I think were not connected to one of the campaigns.


First, a quick overview of the first hour: Candidate and current Councilman Shirl LeBaron devoted his first statement to a discussion of what the mayor does and LeBaron's own relevant qualifications. Candidate Heber Thompson passed out a set of four position papers (which I thought was a nice touch) and spent his first statement walking us through the first, on leadership, including priorities, planning, fiduciary responsibility, decision-making processes, and the value of human resources. LeBaron followed with some discussion of  public safety and other City responsibilities and assets. Thompson's second statement (and paper) discussed City finances. LeBaron's third was on meeting the challenges of growth. Thompson devoted his third statement (and paper) to water. In the six-minute statements, LeBaron emphasized, not for the last time in the evening, that he has been "part of the solution, not part of the problem" in the last two years, as a member of the City Council. Thompson left us to review page four of his handout (the position paper on wages and productivity at the City) on our own, and returned to the familiar themes of careful, long-range planning, careful handling of financial matters, and sound business plans for the City's business-related assets, such as the recreation center and the broadband system.

Now, let's backtrack and pick up some interesting points raised by one candidate or other in the first hour. Inevitably, they are interrupted by my own commentary. For what it's worth, there were numerous instances in which (according to my information) the candidates got their numbers wrong, saying thousand instead of million, 12 months instead of 18, three instead of two, or 128 instead of 144. I don't care about those. Most of us couldn't speak in such detail on such a range of subjects without getting making at least that many errors along the way. So on to more substantive notes.

  • LeBaron discussed the City's bond obligations in detail, noting that the only one he would have voted against, had he been on the Council at the time, was the bond to fund the Meadows infrastructure on the west side of the city.
  • Thompson starting talking about water in a way has bugged me for months. (Other candidates have done it, too.) But when we got past that and into the substance of the matter, he was basically okay. What bugs me is when people say we have only two years' worth of water left, as if there were some great reservoir somewhere holding all the water we'll ever get, and it will be all gone in two years. In fact, at the current rate of growth and the current rate of water usage, we will be a little short of culinary water in two years. The next year, we'll be a little shorter, and so on. That's much different. It gives us time to act rationally instead of panicking. (Thompson isn't trying to cause a panic; he and others are just less careful about the phrasing than I would like.)  
  • LeBaron said, "Leadership . . . is the ability to get people to work together." I agree. I would add that it's mostly the ability to get them to work together on the leader's vision.
  • Picking up on a theme that was raised last week in the council candidates' meeting, LeBaron noted that our library budget is "an embarrassment." In context, he meant the library's book budget. It's pretty hard to disagree. Come to think of it, I have agreed.)
  • Thompson said the City's number one challenge is financial; he wants to manage the money we have carefully and increase revenues through economic growth.
  • LeBaron, a quasi-incumbent because he occupies a seat on the City Council, said that this is no time for on-the-job training; he emphasized his own government experience, which Thompson does not have.
  • Thompson, for his part, has shown himself throughout the campaign, including tonight, to be a quick study on City issues, who knows how to connect with state officials and other issue experts. He touted his wealth of management experience in well-managed large corporations, which he asserts is transferable to government.
  • LeBaron said (with my figurative, if not literal, applause) that if I let my property become a nuisance and an eyesore, to the extent that it diminishes my neighbors' property values, I am guilty of a form of theft.
  • Thompson noted that the City Council, in its most recent meeting, voted to give the west end developers another $1.3 million, even though there's no money for that in the City's current budget. (One who was at that meeting surmises that he had in mind an expenditure related to extending water service along and beyond the existing 1120 North, which is needed for, but not directly a gift to, the west end.)
  • In response to Thompson's familiar discussion of major financial troubles at the City, LeBaron emphasized that we've tightened our belts and are meeting our financial obligations. (I suppose we are, at a bare minimum acceptable level. But he can't ride that horse too far, when the City can't even pay for the increased maintenance on our newly-improved parks, for example.)
  • I earnestly hope LeBaron was kidding -- in context, he might have been -- when he said we need to divine what the next hugely successful multilevel marketing scheme is and get it to locate in American Fork. MLM wouldn't do much for American Fork's reputation as a place for people where serious and reputable people do business, in my opinion.
  • LeBaron has heard Thompson say many times that, in Thompson, we'd get a full-time mayor for a part-time price. Last night, he struck first, noting that we don't need a full-time mayor micro-managing the City Administrator or department heads. Under the present circumstances, I'm not sure that isn't just exactly what we do need, especially when the closest person we have to that city administrator is a relatively junior staffer, not the sort of person you tend to think of as a city administrator or mayoral chief of staff. But this is politics; he had to say it. Thompson didn't bat an eye; his next statement included, again, the promise of a full-time mayor for a part-time price -- which is what he had to do, too.
  • In coming back again and again to the idea that he has been part of the solution, not part of the problem, over the last two years, LeBaron was clearly trying to distance himself from Mayor Barratt's administration. This was clearer last night than in previous events, but still not quite overt. (Personally, I'd like to see him say, here's what's been going wrong the last few years on Mayor Barratt's watch; here's what I've tried to do as a member of the Council to fix it; and here's what I'll do as mayor to fix it.)


The second hour consisted of questions from the audience, with mostly three-minute answers from each candidate, and sometimes a follow-up or rebuttal. The format and timing worked well with two candidates. Many of the questions were familiar from other, similar events; I will note the topic of each (where it was discernable) but generally only mention what I found new or interesting in the answers.

Alcohol Sales to Youth: A gentleman asked the EASY question again, in slightly different form than before. Thompson had done some more research since last time, and noted that the Utah Department of Health is considering mandating EASY statewide, and that three of twelve relevant businesses in American Fork already comply voluntarily.

Parks, Special Interests, and Committee Abuse: A gentleman from the Parks and Recreation Committee asked a multi-part question. First, Art Dye Park once had a bright future, which was partly derailed by "special interests." He cited the equestrians as an example. Will the candidates stand up to special interests for the City's benefit? Also, he noted that the Parks and Recreation Committee was bypassed in planning the recent round of park upgrades. Will the candidates use, rather than ignore, the City's existing committees? The candidates' responses were mostly predictable and not outstanding, but these points seem noteworthy:

  • I have seen the City ignore and disrespect its own volunteer committees and the products of their labors more often than not, but it didn't happen this time. The City did not bypass the Parks and Recreation. It found that three committees, Parks and Recreation, Beautification, and Neighbors in Action, were working on the same thing, or at least very interested, and all three were in their purview. (How that is a problem is a topic for another day.) So it created a Parks Task Force, consisting of representatives from all three committees, to work together and avoid duplicating efforts. Later, the Parks Steering Committee combined some members of that Task Force with various City officials and contractors to oversee the project.
  • LeBaron offered the combined RDA Task Force as a similar example of bypassing committees. This is also a factual error. The so-called RDA funds, according to state law, are available for use toward arts and recreation facilities. So, logically, the arts community formed its committee (I was on it), and it and the Parks and Recreation Committee prepared recommendations in their respective areas. Then a combined task force was assembled from members of the two (I was also on it), to examine the recommendations and prepare a unified set of recommendations and priorities for the City.
  • LeBaron praised the older master plan for Art Dye Park at the expense of the plan generated in the recent upgrade process. I don't have the knowledge to compare the two plans point by point, but a candidate might want to tread lightly in disparaging a plan which had an unusually high level of public input and participation, as the recent one did.

Balancing Arts and Recreation Funding: LeBaron picked up my point (not necessarily from me; it seems self-evident) that the dollars per participant might be inherently different between arts and recreation programs, so absolute numerical equality may not be a proper answer. (I don't know that anyone is promising that, but a 15-to-1 disproportion in the City budget -- overall, not per participant -- does suggest the need for some examination.) Thompson talked about the Arts Council's request for some funding for the Harrington School, which the City Council, including LeBaron, rejected when RDA money was at issue. Some notes:

  • The Arts Council's enthusiasm for using the Harrington School came very late, after they had earlier insisted that it would be of no use to them whatsoever. Meanwhile, the City Hall modifications and new secular cultural hall (in LDS parlance, that's a gym used for some cultural things other than sports) at the rec center now reported dissatisfy them, though it was earlier announced that these facilities had the Arts Council's support. So it's hard to pin down exactly what the arts community wants, and therefore probably unfair to hold the City responsible for not giving them what they want. Whatever the City has or has not done for its arts programs, much of the responsibility must fairly be directed at the Arts Council itself for not providing clearer leadership. So I'm giving both candidates a pass on the arts. Short of outright hostility or single-minded devotion, neither of which I'm hearing (or want to), I don't know that it matters much where they stand, when the ground keeps shifting.
  • LeBaron said we can do better than the Harrington School for our arts community, and that the Harrington comes with too many question marks. I evaluate the first part of that statement as questionable and the second part as true. Some of the questions will probably be resolved over time, if there is any real, ongoing interest -- which there should be.
  • Finally, my best working definition of a special interest is as follows: Your interests are "special interests" if they conflict with mine. You'll think mine are "special interests" if they conflict with yours. For what it's worth, the candidate making the most noise about special interests (in connection with other candidates) is council candidate Marc Ellison, whose determination not to see his property taxes raised is as close to a special interest as any other other candidate's position on anything. The candidate taking the special interest barb most personally is Councilwoman Juel Belmont, because it sometimes refers to her storied fondness for trees and historic buildings. In that context, one should note that special interests are not necessarily bad things.

Visions of Downtown: A gentleman who said he's about to move three small businesses into downtown asked the candidates to share their specific visions for downtown, to comment on how they personally define downtown, and to discuss how Main Street (which is a state highway) fits in. Discussion of this subject proceeded mostly along familiar lines, but I found these points interesting:

  • Neither candidate defined the geographic boundaries of downtown. I seem to recall that for Downtown American Fork, Inc.'s, (DAFI) purposes it is 100 South to 100 North, and 100 East to 100 West, but I could be wrong. My own view of downtown is more inclusive; I essentially live downtown, on 200 West, and I'd like to see some attention from 500 East to 500 West, within a block or two of Main/State Street.
  • LeBaron noted that the City has funded some redevelopment loans, for which no one has applied. I'm sure there's enough blame here to go around: to the City for not publicizing them more effectively; to the business owners for not being on the ball; and to DAFI, which Thompson currently leads, for not doing a better job bringing the City and the business owners together. This matter illustrates an ongoing difficulty of being a candidate and an office-holder: You can't criticize things too much, or folks will start to wonder why you weren't part of the solution as an office-holder, before the campaign ever started.
  • LeBaron debuted the argument that he can do more for downtown that Thompson can, since Thompson is reputed to be specially interested in downtown, and LeBaron isn't. It's an interesting gambit, but it partakes of the tiresome rhetoric about Thompson (and council candidates Dale Gunther and Heidi Rodeback) being determined to funnel the City's funds downtown, at the expense of the rest of the city. That's baloney, but some voters are buying it. If you actually listen to any of the three candidates in the imagined coalition, downtown isn't the foremost issue on the mind of any of them.
  • LeBaron reprised the meaningless theme of not sending tax money to private businesses downtown, which is meaningless because no one is actually suggesting it -- not even Thompson, his opponent and the current leader of DAFI. LeBaron still hasn't clarified what Thompson's interest is in downtown, if it's not pure civic-mindedness. LeBaron said that downtown is getting too much attention in the current campaign, which may be true, but he is largely responsible for making it a dominant issue. He is the one who really started beating the war drums about downtown, because he evaluated his opponents' (Thompson's and Brown's, originally) well-known interest in it as a liability.
  • LeBaron mentioned, for the first time in my hearing, the idea of looking for a way to use the American Fork River beautifully downtown -- liberating it from its current concrete prison, if you will (that's my phrase, don't blame Lebaron). Interesting.

Modern Public Communications: I asked essentially this: Sooner or later, you will probably want the public to vote on a proposed general bond issue to fund pressurized irrigation. Using that as an example, and understanding that bad public communication makes even good City actions look bad, how will you (a) educate the public enough that they can see that the City has done its homework and made the best decision, as to both the system and the financing; and (b) convince them to trust you and believe what you're telling them? Unfortunately, I didn't ask it quite that clearly, and the answers were not fully on point. LeBaron mentioned the newsletter, blogging, the City web site, answering e-mail, and having public forums, perhaps even at the neighborhood level. Thompson said that if the public can see both the decision-making process and the decision clearly, we'll have fewer expensive lawsuit. (True, but how will we see it more clearly?) He said there has been too much contention in the past, and that the Mayor and staff need to do a better job of informing Council members about issues in a timely manner. He said he would designate someone to have that responsibility.

Communications, Reprised: One of our symphony musicians noted that people are busy, and mostly uninvolved in City matters, and wondered how the candidates would address that. He asked how they would stay in touch with what their hearts tell them to do, not just what the vocal, involved residents want. (I'm not sure if they're supposed to do exhaustive polling or simply be psychic. But I am sure I want them to use their brains a lot, too, not just their hearts.) LeBaron talked about having town meetings, with appropriate safeguards, and noted that in many cases our real opposition is apathy and ignorance. Thompson spoke positively of (as he said) council candidate Heidi Rodeback's desire to organize the neighborhoods and to exploit interest in issues which is often concentrated at the neighborhood level. And he said, as I think I have heard him say before, that he'd like the mayor to give a regular "State of the City" speech in a public setting, at least annually, in which he would report on his broad stewardship and discussion his plans and vision for the future. If LeBaron wins, I'd like to see him do the same.

Communications Reprise, Reprised: Someone else noted that we're all very busy; how will the candidates, as Mayor, use their resources to get the word out? (Apparently, my preoccupation with the City's inept public communications is not solely my own.) LeBaron suggested putting unapproved (and therefore timely) Council meeting notes on the Web site promptly, and even exploring creating a Web-bases video archive of meetings. (I'll pass on the video, thanks. Life is too short, and Council meetings are not often that interesting. But I'd be grateful for the notes.) Thompson mentioned the American Fork Citizen's responsibility, endorsed the notion of putting draft minutes on the Internet, and mentioned the water bill, as well. Neither candidate said, but I will, that the Citizen does a very good job sorting through and writing about the issues, generally, but usually (and necessarily) reports on an issue when it's already too late, or almost too late, for the public to get educated and wield some influence on a decision. (That's not a criticism of the newspaper, just an essentially unavoidable fact.)

Special Interests and Organizing Neighborhoods: Incumbent council candidate Juel Belmont, a member of the audience, got the last question. It was two-fold. First, Thompson's earlier mention of council candidate (and former Neighbors in Action chair) Heidi Rodeback's desire to revive Neighbors in Action rankled. True, Rodeback was a very effective chair for two years -- something you won't hear Belmont admit during the campaign -- but it was Belmont herself who was instrumental in creating the organization which eventually became American Fork Neighbors in Action. The first part of her question was really rhetorical: Do the candidates remember when the neighborhoods were first organized? The second part of the question was essentially, Why do people always say they don't like special interest groups, and should an elected official represent all residents equally, or just special interests? (Maybe it's just the political theorist in me, but that question isn't entirely a no-brainer.) Her speech in general was rather murky, so the candidate's answers were as well, to some degree. The parts I understood were plain vanilla, except that LeBaron talked yet again about the (mythical) group with a single agendum, meaning Thompson and DAFI. Thompson, who seems actually to have a variety of interests, talked about the importance of the City responding to various interests and trying to offer a broad spectrum of activities and opportunities. It was a weak pair of questions, so it's not surprising the answers were weak. LeBaron beat yet again on the tiresome, inaccurate my-opponent-only-loves-downtown theme, which is starting to sound a little cheap. Thompson basically was treading water and serving up platitudes.

Closing Statements: In his closing statement, Thompson got historical for a minute, then promised to lead as he has campaigned: honestly, respectfully, with open communication, etc. He expressed his desire to serve, and noted that he could be doing other things in his retirement which are more fun and less work, but he wants to serve. (I believe him.) LeBaron said in his closing that we should judge his future performance by the past -- a sound principle, but where can I easily find an official copy of his voting record or details about the issues on which he voted? (I can't; that's a problem the next Mayor should solve.) He went through his (excellent) resume of public service again and reprised the "part of the solution, not part of the problem" theme. He noted some of the things the City and Council have accomplished in the last two years, and fairly and truthfully noted that he personally did not have a lot to do with the parks upgrades, which were essentially in place when he took office. Again, he seemed to want to distance himself from the Barratt Administration.


Both candidates came across as mayoral in bearing and generally in command of the issues. It's a win-win situation for the voters. But neither candidate sealed the deal with this voter. I still cannot answer for myself these basic questions:

  • How much of what LeBaron says he wants to do is politics, and how much of it is genuine, and therefore likely actually to happen if he is elected? And where was he over the past two years, when volunteer committees were advocating causes his campaign literature says he supports, but which the current Mayor clearly did not?
  • If elected, will Thompson really back-burner the pressurized irrigation system to allow more time for study, or can we just get on with it, already? And when he has a better view of AFC Net's potential for revenue and for attracting businesses and residences, can I count on him, thus informed, to catch the vision and back it wholeheartedly?

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