David Rodeback's Blog

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Saturday, January 2, 2010
A Look Back at Mayor Thompson's Four Years

Before we look ahead to a new administration in American Fork, we owe the outgoing mayor both our appreciation for his willing service and a decent acknowledgment of his accomplishments in office.

For American Fork's city government, the new year begins at noon on Monday, with the swearing-in of two re-elected city councilors and a new mayor. There will be time enough to speak of the future as it unfolds. Meanwhile, another noon-on-Monday milestone deserves a look -- in this case, a look back. You see, noon on Monday is also the end of Mayor Heber Thompson's four-year term.

I've been blogging here for all four of those years, and I've tried to be candid and fair in writing of the successes and failures of American Fork City government. Inevitably, there have been some of both; the same is probably true of any other person or institution. But in this case -- Mayor Thompson's, I mean -- I think the positives outweigh the negatives by quite a bit.

I'm not particularly interested in the negatives at the moment. I myself would like to be remembered, by whomever eventually remembers me, for the things I did well -- preferably, the things I did best. I'd rather that most of the rest be forgotten. In that spirit, let's look at some of the major accomplishments of Mayor Thompson and his administration, and let's try not to be unnecessarily critical of his or past administrations in the process.

Pressurized Irrigation

American Fork may be the last city in north Utah County to build a pressurized irrigation system, but it's not just a luxury that we want because everyone else has it. Even before the 2005 election campaign in American Fork, it was known that the city's culinary water supply was inadequate not just for future growth, but for the present population. In fact, it wasn't simply a matter of not having enough culinary water; the delivery system itself was inadequate. Appropriately, water became a key issue in that year's campaigns.

Whatever we may say of previous administrations, who, for reasons of their own, talked from time to time about the problem but left it for their successors to solve at much greater cost, the fact of the matter is that the problem was serious by the time Mayor Thompson was sworn in in January 2006. His administration and the city council did their homework, studied several major options and numerous minor variations, and chose what I still think was the most prudent approach: provide irrigation water for watering lawns, so more precious culinary water could be conserved for other purposes, and do it for the whole city at once. They worked hard to inform the public of the issues and the proposal, and a decent majority of voters approved the bond issue proposed to finance the project. Since then, the project has presented some unforeseen challenges and some unexpected economies, and it is nearing completing ahead of schedule and under budget.

Unstrangling the Budget

The Thompson administration began just as some significant fiscal challenges were reaching a climax. There is a perverse feature of Utah's Truth-in-Taxation law which requires cities to take a tax cut in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars every year that they don't adopt a so-called tax increase just to stay even. Human nature being what it is, in practice this means that city budgets slowly strangle themselves, until, once every decade or two, leaders gird up their loins and pass a substantial tax "increase," raising tax rates to a level that is usually still lower than they were a decade or two before. Because of these magical shrinking budgets, capital and infrastructure expenditures were being put off in American Fork to a dangerous degree. In fact, where road maintenance is concerned, the full scope of the problem did not become clear until the latter half of Thompson's term, when a recession loomed, pressurized irrigation was already digging up everything anyway, and virtually nothing could be done. This will become one of the major challenges of the James Hadfield administration and probably an administration or two after his.

The City raised property taxes significantly in 2006, but it seems to me that most American Forkers took it in stride. When 2008 brought another, much more controversial tax increase, the public was not so patient, and this may have turned the 2009 election more than any other single issue. But the 2006 increase relieved some serious problems, including the steady stream of police officers leaving for other, higher-paying jurisdictions, once they were trained at American Fork's expense. It helped that one of the last things the Ted Barratt administration did in 2005 was hire a superb new police chief, Lance Call, but the situation required money in addition to leadership. (By the way, the early read on American Fork's new fire chief, Kriss Garcia, is that he's a winner, too.)

Fixing Leaks

Early in the Thompson years, the city's municipal broadband system had been mismanaged for years and was losing money by the bale. Again, the administration and council did their homework; this time they decided to cut their losses. They sold the system, leaving the City to pay only for some bonds. For what it's worth, I have noticed absolutely no differences in my Internet service since the sale, and it was working beautifully before. So it looks like this was a good call: the City escaped much of the financial burden, but users have been able to keep their broadband service.

Gradually over the past four years, a number of City departments have been held more accountable for paying their own way. The word on the street is that a municipal recreation center is doing well to earn two-thirds to three-fourths of its way, for example; better leadership and more scrutiny help this somewhat. It is probably inevitable that arts and recreation programs will need the City to provide facilities, but if the programs can otherwise break even, they are doing well. Mayor Thompson hasn't been the only one involved in these matters in the last four years; Councilman Dale Gunther and others have done an enormous amount of work in this area, too. But I think we have to call this one of Mayor Thompson's successes.

Procedural Reforms and Professionalism

Some procedural reforms Mayor Thompson and the council instituted early in his term are more important than they appear. For example, insisting that an issue be on a work session agenda for discussion before it appears on an agenda for action means that decisions are not rushed through the council by eager staff, and City lawmakers have a reasonable amount of time to study and investigate the details of an issue before casting a vote. This enhances both the transparency and the quality of decisions.

I've griped fairly regularly over the years about the general inadequacy of public communication from the City. I have never thought that this batch of leaders is trying to hide things; I think the institutional understanding of and commitment to clear and abundant communication isn't yet universally adequate. That said, these matters have gone much better in some cases under Mayor Thompson. The City Web site's evolution over the last few years is a case in point. It is now much more useful than it was just a year or two ago; even the Municipal Code is now available online. There are miles yet to go in these matters, a step or two at a time, but the last four years have brought significant progress.

We're well into the realm of intangibles here, and maybe it's just me, but Mayor Thompson seems in some significant ways to have enhanced the dignity and professionalism of the mayor's office. I had actually hoped for more improvement of this sort to trickle down in the administration, but, as it is, it's progress.

Two Final Matters, Not Small

It's probably impossible for a mayor to listen enough to please everyone all the time (at least in that respect). I've heard some complaints on that score. But I've also seen Mayor Thompson exercise great patience with residents and others, even if they ended up needing more than the allotted two minutes to express themselves in a public comment period. When people have had something to say, even if they haven't said it very well or very quickly, and sometimes even when they were technically out of order, he has seemed more interested in hearing them out than it hurrying through an agenda. I suppose such a thing could be overdone, but I have thought well of it every time I have witnessed it.

Finally, those of us who do not run for or serve in local elected office should try very hard not to underestimate the commitment and sacrifice of those who do. I know that some people run for office more out of ego and ambition than out of a desire to be useful, but none of American Fork's current elected officials are of that sort. We owe our candidates a debt of thanks for exposing themselves and their ideas to public debate and criticism. We owe those who actually serve a similar but much larger debt. Often enough, we will dislike their policies, their personalities, or both, but even at those times we should be adult enough to appreciate the time and effort they devote and the privacy they sacrifice to serve in public office.

Mayor Thompson leaves office on Monday with some serious accomplishments to his credit, and with my thanks, at least, for his four years of willing service.

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