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Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Observations on the State of American Fork City Government

Three thumbs up, one thumb down. It's good progress, if anatomically incorrect. But the thumb down is fairly serious and arguably urgent.

First Disclaimer

This is a good time to remind you that I am not an official or unofficial spokeman for American Fork City Councilor Heidi Rodeback, to whom I have the good fortune to be married. My opinions are mine, and hers are hers. We frequently agree, often discuss, and sometimes persuade, but you cannot safely assume agreement, or that I possess inside information, in any specific instance.

If you want my thoughts, you're in the right place. If you want hers -- which matter more than mine, in the political scheme of things -- she has her own blog.


I spent several hours last evening at a meeting of the American Fork City Council and at a long Council hearing which preceded it. The hot topic was the City's broadband system, AFCNet. Two action items on the agenda involved declaring it surplus (a legal requirement preceding a request for proposals, or RFP) and directing staff to issue an RFP (giving the City the option to sell or lease the system and some hard information about its value, but not requiring a sale). Both those measures passed with some amendment, after much discussion, some of which was heated. The Council also approved a proposed tentative budget for the upcoming fiscal year, after some discussion. It includes about a 35 percent increase in the City's portion of the property tax, not the 50 percent that was bandied about a few weeks ago in the DTM. (That's Dead Tree Media.) I'll have more to say on both those topics in future posts, but today I have a more general observation, for which last evening's meeting provides part of the context.

I don't attend City Council meetings as often as I did for a few years; my role in support of my favorite city councilor usually involves being at home on Tuesday evenings with our children, if I'm not in my office at church tending to my own responsibilities. But I have attended one Council work session and one regular meeting lately. What I observed there confirmed some thoughts I had formed about the new administration, based on conversations with a variety of City officials and my current and past experience on certain City committees.

Three Positive

First, the atmosphere in the meetings is more businesslike, more respectful of City residents, and more tolerant of discussion than tended to be the case under the previous regime. This is refreshing and even reassuring.

Second, the level of collective mental effort and the apparent expectations of intellectual rigor by our elected officials are noticeably higher than before. If both continue to increase, I think it will gradually become obvious to residents and others that American Fork is becoming a well-governed city.

Third, the newly-elected officials are struggling mightily not to point fingers overtly at their predecessors, for the wide and deep fiscal and administrative disarray they have inherited. This is despite the fact that they continually find themselves having to do unpleasant things to reverse the effects of unwise and misguided past decisions and practices. (The most obvious examples are the broadband morass and the need for a large tax increase.) It's hard -- but classy -- to take the heat for someone else's mistakes day after day after day without growing cranky and bitter. If they can maintain this demeanor and still communicate to city residents at large how desperate is the City's need to increase property taxes substantially this year, I will be very impressed. If they can do it without eventually needing therapy, that will be good, too.

One Negative

Fourth, these three improvements have cast a continuing challenge in stark relief. Poor staff work and inadequate staff communication -- by some but not all senior staffers -- are still hanging the Mayor and Council out to dry occasionally. Sometimes it's conspicuous. I will not mention names or many details, because my intent is not to write an expose of specific individuals. My motive, rather, is to report on progress and continuing major challenges in the ongoing, long-term, diplomatically untrumpeted project of dragging American Fork City government into the 21st Century, administratively and politically.

In recent weeks I have witnessed a senior staffer present at public, noticed meetings without even the most basic information needed for Council discussion of major agenda items for which that staffer is responsible.

I have seen multiple instances where conscientious elected officials have learned belatedly that some senior staffers had provided them with incomplete, contradictory, or inaccurate responses to basic questions affecting major decisions.

I have heard multiple, credible, first- and second-person accounts of micromanagement by senior staff, ironically mixed with a chronic unwillingness or inability to communicate effectively. These difficulties have substantively impeded the progress and success of at least one rather high-profile City department and caused the City to remain in violation of some contracts.

I have observed, and heard multiple comments on, at least one senior staffer's unprofessional demeanor in public meetings.

Last, but definitely least under the circumstances, I even witnessed some rather glaring numerical miscalculations in materials senior staff prepared for the Council and the public.

I became intimately familiar with the effects of bad or inadequate staff work through years of service on volunteer City committees, which received only haphazard and unreliable staff support, and therefore wasted a great deal of volunteer time. That's bad enough. But when it's the Mayor and City Council who are being hung out to dry, despite their own diligence and competence, it's much worse.

I Further Disclaim

Please note these disclaimers:

  • I am not gathering all senior staffers under my critical umbrella.
  • I am not saying that there is anything malicious or lazy on the part of the senior staffers who pose these challenges, or that they are not fine people, good neighbors, and upstanding citizens, who stop at stop signs, tear up at hearing the national anthem, and treat their pets kindly.
  • I'm not saying that the new expectation of professionalism at the City has failed to produce some positive changes.
  • I'm not saying that the staffers in question are unable to learn fairly quickly to provide the proper type and quality of support to elected officials. Perhaps they can and will, even if they haven't yet.
  • I'm not saying that I dismiss the difficulty of adapting to new, much higher professional expectations after years of . . . something else.
  • I'm not saying that there should be zero tolerance for mistakes. (If there were zero tolerance at my workplace, neither I nor anyone else would be employed there.)
  • I'm not saying that I'm God's gift to administration, leadership, or politics -- or even blogging, for that matter.

So Would This Be a Claimer?

I am saying that our elected officials, who officially work only part-time in their positions, need, deserve, and are paying for better full-time staff support than they are getting. This is rapidly proving to be a major obstacle. Every major thing they need or want to accomplish will be unnecessarily difficult until they consistently receive the necessary level of support from all senior staff. Whether that support comes from current staffers (if they can learn quickly) or their replacements, it needs to come from someone soon.

Shirl LeBaron comments (6/15/06):

Well said and well done. If I didn't know any better I would have thought you were in my "seat" seeing some of the "challenges" wherein you opine. We have problems as you address them. Thank you for bringing to bear, from a responsible and involved citizen's point of view, these concerns.

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