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Friday, September 21, 2007
Political Facts of Life in American Fork

A quick look at some other folks' primaries, followed by a discussion of major ongoing issues in American Fork, as they relate to the election.

Labor Day was nearly three weeks ago. The primary election American Fork did not need, and therefore did not have, would have been a week and a half ago. I saw my first city council campaign sign in American Fork a few days ago.


The Grass Is Greener . . .

Other municipalities did have primary elections, of course. In Highland, it was only slightly more interesting than not having one. Three at-large seats are up for election, and the primary whittled a field of seven candidates to six, advancing three incumbents and three challengers, and leaving the seventh, a guy named Chad, out in the cold. I suppose it's noteworthy that the three incumbents didn't take first, second, and third places, but first, fifth, and sixth.

Salt Lake City's primary was actually interesting, and proved once again that my personal guesses as to who will win actually matter . . . not at all. Ralph Becker, who did not impress me at a debate I saw, led the pack with more than 10,000 votes. Dave Buhler, who did not show up to the aforementioned debate, finished second with more than 7500 votes and challenges Becker in the general election. The race is officially non-partisan, but it's worth noting that Buhler is an actual Republican. There isn't always a Republican that survives the mayoral primary up there.

Jenny Wilson, who did impress, whom I predicted would win in the primary and the general, and who led the pack in several polls, finished third in the primary with more than 6300 votes, and therefore won't be in the general. Keith Christensen, another reasonably credible candidate, finished a distant fourth, with almost 2300 votes.

The rest of the pack wasn't even close. J. P. Hughes finished with less than 400 votes, and four other candidates finished in double digits. (My vote counts are unofficial and come from this Deseret Morning News article.)

Watch for Becker to pick up Wilson's votes, and Buhler to pick up Christensen's votes, meaning Becker wins in November by about a mile, unless he stumbles in a really big way in the meantime.

What Matters in American Fork's Election

The interesting ballot item for American Forkers is actually Citizen's State Referendum Number 1, in which the voters will pass judgment on the school voucher law the Utah Legislature passed over the winter -- of which more, probably much more, in later posts.

It doesn't seem likely that the lone challenger for American Fork City Council, Jason Porter, will mount a serious challenge to the three incumbents. No one seems to have heard from him or seen evidence of actual campaigning yet, and I've heard several people wonder why he isn't attending City Council meetings regularly -- or at all, they say, but bear in mind that no one takes an official roll of the residents in the cheap seats. I'm looking forward to a first encounter on Thursday, when the local PTSA sponsors an event at 7:00 p.m. at American Fork Junior High, with an assortment of candidates and some office-holders who aren't up for reelection.

If I were campaigning as an incumbent, I'd be emphasizing these points:

City Council is not a good entry-level position any more, if it ever was. The dominant issues require extensive understanding of many parts of city government and of county and state government, too. The constant need to build, maintain, and rebuild infrastructure is complex enough and very susceptible to procrastination. The need to manage inevitable growth wisely is equally complex. Growing concerns about roads and traffic require working effectively with state agencies, the County, and other municipalities. And some persistent leadership and management challenges at the City scarcely even reveal themselves to the neophyte. Generally, city councilors seem to fare best in American Fork when they come to their swearing-in with years of experience on the Planning Commission or elsewhere in the City organization, volunteer or otherwise, or with extensive relevant professional experience and years of at least closely observing city politics and operations.

City Council is not for the thin-skinned, and it also requires great patience. Note the recent flap over 9600 North, which is not even an American Fork street, in which a small group of alarmists, who could not be bothered to learn the facts, roused large numbers to write letters (sometimes very long letters), to flood public comment periods, and even to disrupt (rudely) other parts of meetings. Note also the general wave of NIMBYism, in the form of people who own multiple vehicles and drive them everywhere, but who insist that no minor or major collector street in the entire city actually be built to accommodate an appropriate amount of traffic. (See Barbara Christiansen's recent article.)

Idealism is fine, and every official ought to have some, but every official also needs two feet planted firmly in reality, and a head that only occasionally lingers in the clouds (or the sand). Being the people's elected representative sometimes means representing specific individuals' and groups' views and interests aggressively. But at other times the people are uninformed, unwilling to be informed, and unable to see the big picture. What one voter, or a city block of voters, believes to be best for themselves is not always best for the city as a whole. In a democratic republic (that's us), officials are elected to represent the people's best interest, not the people's every whim. They are elected to have and to develop expertise in many issues beyond the typical voter's knowledge or interest, and to base their judgments on that larger understanding. The leaders I elect owe me their best judgment, not a slavish devotion to public opinion.

It rubs against my conservative grain, and rather severely at that, but I have to say that in Utah municipalities officials have to jeopardize their future reelection in a big way, by being willing, within limits, to vote for regular tax increases, so-called. This is because relevant Utah law does not allow for inflation. In deciding how many tax dollars a city or town may assess -- more precisely, in setting each year's Certified Tax Rate for each municipality -- counties are not permitted to use real, inflation-adjusted dollars. This gives cities a somewhat deceptive choice: between an automatic annual revenue cut equal to the inflation rate (usually a few percent per year), and presenting the people with a tax increase, even if the "increase" just means holding revenues at the same level as last year, in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. Leaders' squeamishness about such tax "increases" is how, over a decade or two, American Fork got into the fiscal pickle from which it is just emerging. On one hand, I'd like to think that able local Utah Representative John Dougall both understands this situation and could lead a legislative charge to fix it. On the other hand, I'm fairly certain that some state representatives in the area don't understand it, so carrying the day might be difficult.

The need to work effectively with and sometimes against other government entities, including the state, the county, and neighoring cities, means that experience and relationships matter enormously. Generally speaking, incumbents have the experience and have developed the relationships, and challengers haven't.

Experience alone does not make a leader effective at explaining complexities to constituents, but even for a gifted communicator, there is no substitute for experience trying to communicate with residents of a specific community on specific issues. To be sure, effective communication can work wonders. It passed a needed pressurized irrigation bond last year in American Fork. It could even mostly defuse discontent over the needed tax "increases" caused by the state's perverse handling of the aforementioned Certified Tax Rates.

Finally, as in every municipality, I suppose, and despite some major improvements in the past year or two, there remain in American Fork some serious administrative bottlenecks and dysfunctions. Actual experience seeing and working around these obstacles is an enormous advantage in getting things done. And it is the only serious hope for fixing at least some of the problems.

I'm not saying one should always vote for incumbents, or that challengers cannot excel in the first year or two of an elected term, as at least two have done in American Fork lately. I am saying that some sort of long-term engagement prior to service on the City Council is an enormous advantage to the City and its residents. I, for one, find it quite compelling where this year's field of candidates is concerned.

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