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Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Notes on Last Evening's Water Meeting

Here are some of my notes from last evening's American Fork town meeting on secondary irrigation.

I went last evening to the first of two American Fork town meetings about the proposed water bond issue, which will be on the ballot in American Fork on November 7. It was held in the Community Room at the American Fork Library, a fairly nice venue for such things. It lasted about two hours, and it was standing room only.

I've lately been outlining a series of explanatory articles on the issue, intending to begin posting them within a few days. In those I will attempt to be systematic. Here, however, I will simply record my miscellaneous notes about the meeting, emphasizing its tenor over its substance. I want to deliver my notes before they go stale, you see.

Background and Motives

I've been looking over the City's shoulder, so to speak, for quite a while, as officials have studied American Fork's water situation, settled on a course of action, and labored to explain it clearly to the voters. I opined here before that, in choosing a citywide secondary (pressurized) irrigation system, the City Council has chosen the most intelligent of the available options.

The City recently mailed residents a five-page explanation of the situation, the proposed solution, and the bond issue election. While I think I would have preferred a slightly different approach in the "Community Fact Sheet" itself, I must admit that it is the best, most detailed explanation I have seen of a complex local issue since moving to American Fork more than eight years ago. While still less than ideal, it constitutes evidence of careful study and a solid commitment to public communication. It is therefore quite refreshing, such as it is.

By now, you know I didn't go to the meeting to make up my mind how to vote on November 7. While I hoped to learn more than I already knew, a larger motive was to get a sense of public opinion about the proposal. My largest motive was to see how well the City would perform in the new administration's most significant public relations test to date. At the risk of ruining the suspense, I note that the evening exceeded my expectations in all three respects.

Starting Small, with PowerPoint, of All Things

The PowerPoint presentation with which Mayor Thompson opened the meeting was better than its property tax-related precedessor in several ways:

  • Its content was clearer and began with the basics of the subject.
  • I didn't notice any fun or embarrassing typos.
  • The Mayor deferred nearly all questions until after the presentation was finished. (This is a lesson I suspect he learned from that angry property tax hearing this summer.)

That said, more expertise on the staff's part in using the software and some serious proofing and rehearsal of the presentation in its final form would have helped. As usual, I expect too much. But small things affect credibility.

My Fellow Residents

Then there was the audience, which numbered about 90, not counting City officials, media, and the odd engineer. They distinguished themselves in these ways:

  • At least 20 of them asked questions and made comments -- a high percentage -- and a noticeable majority of the questions and comments were intelligent and insightful, as to financial, technical, legal, and political aspects of the matter.
  • There were fewer instances than usual where someone asked a question which had just been answered, and didn't understand the answer the second time, either.
  • Most questioners limited themselves to two or three questions at a time, which is helpful to audience and presenters alike.
  • Only one outburst seemed rude.
  • There was a minimum of whining about hardships for seniors on fixed incomes. I appreciate that, because the government now requires me to pay for their prescriptions, not just their retirement and medical care.
  • There was a minimum of confusion added by people who did the math and came to conclusions exactly opposite what the math actually shows.
  • Several in the audience spoke of their experiences elsewhere, in communities which already have secondary irrigation systems. As I recall, they all favored the proposal, as long as the water is filtered going into the system.
  • More residents than I expected spoke gratefully of a City Council which is finally addressing this long-standing issue, and indicated their support for the proposal.
  • Tori Bahoravitch described quite articulately how she had come to the meeting strongly opposed to the system, but had changed her mind upon learning more. (A good Caleb Warnock article in the Daily Herald quotes her, so I won't.)
  • Some spoke up in favor of limiting growth to minimize our water needs, which isn't really practical in this case, but is a position which needed to be articulated and heard.
  • Finally, and forgive me for ending this list on a negative note, but did I miss something? When did it cease to be rude for men to wear caps or hats indoors?

Mayor Thompson Did Well, and an Engineer Did Even Better

I've already reviewed the audience; now I move to the higher-profile participants.

  • Mayor Thompson did his usual gracious job of listening to all who had something to say, but exerted slightly firmer control over the discussion than I have seen him do in the past -- which is good. His explanations were clear, and he knew when to defer to his experts.
  • Most members of the City Council added a useful thought or two at some point, but did not attempt to dominate the discussion.
  • The real star was John Schiess (pronounced "sheess") of Horrocks Engineers, who answered all manner of technical and other questions clearly, cheerfully, and with flawless political instincts. I enjoyed watching a true professional at work.
  • Another engineer, Richard Noble, of Franson Noble Engineering, was also clear and helpful in his explanations. His firm did some previous studies of pressurized irrigation for American Fork, but not the latest one, so his participation last evening lent credibility to the present proposal, showed him to be a good sport, and, if I may say so, suggested that his surname may be more than a coincidence.
  • Among the Mayor and Messrs. Schiess and Noble, the financial intricacies were quite satisfactorily explained. The three fielded intelligent questions intelligently, on topics ranging from handling depreciation to other cities' experience with the costs of water treatment (the major alternative to a secondary system). They showed us and clearly explained projected costs of the major options through the next 40 years.
  • Everyone there already knew, and some in the audience mentioned, that we wouldn't be in the present predicament if past leaders had acted conscientiously. That had to be said, and the Mayor had to say it, but he did so minimally and diplomatically -- even mercifully -- and moved on, thus continuing his well-established practice of dignified refusal to dwell on others' past mistakes.


The initial PowerPoint presentation occupied maybe 15 or 20 minutes of the meeting; the remainder was given over to public discussion. From the beginning of the questions and answers to the end, there was a noticeable evolution in the audience, from complaints and challenges toward intelligent, sincere, and even helpful attempts to understand how things will work and why certain decisions were made, and to help things go more smoothly. It was an effective meeting, with the audience treating City officials respectfully and vice versa, and with much useful information available to anyone willing to look, listen, and think. It was better than I expected.

I asked some questions of my own, but I will defer them and their answers, plus some interesting details I learned, to the promised forthcoming series of articles here.

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