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Monday, September 29, 2008
Amateur Hour at City Hall, Part II

Bad timing. Bad PR. And how some of these bond issues are win-win situations for some City officials whether they pass or fail.

Recently, I said it's amateur hour at American Fork City Hall, or possibly amateur year. I was talking about the City's handling of five proposed bond issues, which I enumerated. (If you want to nitpick geography, the aforementioned "City Hall" includes the City Administration Building.) I was critical of the City for its sloppy public relations work and for failing to do its homework on some of the bonds issues. For example, the cemetery land purchase is already on the ballot, but the study to determine whether the land is even suitable for cemetery use is unfinished, as is the study to determine the land's fair market value. We learned this at last Tuesday evening's hearing.

I've also been shaking my head at the timing. Who in his or her right mind schedules a bond election to coincide with a high-turnout national election? The conventional wisdom is that if you actually want to pass a bond issue, you schedule it some other time and hope for a lower turnout. And who schedules one right after a major property tax increase, in a difficult economic year? Finally, who puts five of the things on the same ballot?

There Is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

Let's talk about a postcard, one side at a time.

About a week before last week's hearing, American Forkers got a postcard in the mail, announcing the hearing and a later town meeting, and providing some very basic information about the five proposed bond issues. (A more detailed mailer is said to be in production.) The side of the postcard announcing the hearing and town meeting was not too bad, I guess, except that it said the hearing was at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, not 7:00 p.m. Tuesday evening. If this level of sloppiness with respect to the written word were unusual of late, and if there were not a professional public relations firm consulting on the project, I would just nod sagely and intone, "You never find the last typo until it's already printed."

In any case, Mayor Heber Thompson quite understandably made himself available at 7:00 a.m., because of the typo. I give my personal plaudits to the four American Forkers -- the Mayor called them "hardy souls" -- who showed up at that time for the hearing and met with him (as he reported that evening), thus demonstrating that typos in important places have practical consequences.

The other side of the postcard is densely packed with print so fine that you'd think they didn't want us to read it. That's a mistake, and not really a small mistake. A lot of folks will see it as a typical effort by typical politicians to avoid careful scrutiny of the latest scheme to separate taxpayers from their money. If that attitude spreads, the bond issues fail. I don't see it as such a scheme, but we'll get to that.

There's really no margin for offputting errors by the City at this point. If they hope to pass even one of the bond issues under the circumstances I have described, they need the high-quality public relations effort they applied two years ago to the pressurized irrigation bond. Unfortunately, internal politics at the City are such that those who insured the quality of that effort are not influential in this one. It really shows.

As I suggested, this is not ordinary politicians practicing politics as usual, even if it looks that way. The people involved in this generally mean well and are not so calculating. What we're seeing is amateur hour at City Hall, and it's mostly failure on the part of some people who draw professional salaries or consulting fees. (For what it's worth, elected City officials are paid a very modest honorarium, not professional salaries.)

A Win-Win: "Let the Voters Decide"

Two years ago, when it was the pressurized irrigation bond, the Mayor, City Council, and City staff were -- as far as I could tell -- united in their conviction that the issue was crucial. They put a single bond issue on the ballot and made their case as thoroughly and professionally as one could reasonably expect. Even after a significant tax increase, and even with a relatively large November turnout, a large bond issue passed handily.

It's not just the professionalism that is missing this time, and it's not just a lack of unity. (Recall that the Council vote to propose the bond issues was 3-2.)  [Later note: I am advised that the vote to put the bond issues on the ballot actually was 5-0; I was remembering the 3-2 tax increase vote, I suppose. But if you ask the two I thought voted nay, City Councilors Storrs and Rodeback, you may find that they did so for some reason other than that they support and advocate the passage of the bond issues. -- DR, 10/20/08] I don't know if it feels any different this time to the Mayor and the Council majority, but it feels a lot different to the public, to the extent that I've heard and overheard talk of all this.

From the beginning of the news reports about this year's tax increases and bond issues, all the way through Tuesday evening's hearing, we have heard talk of these things being important to some of the voters, so the City is putting them on the ballot, so the voters can decide if they really want them. That's a lot different from identifying a critical issue and making a convincing case. It's passing the buck.

I suspect that the folks at City Hall (broadly defined) who are responsible for the five ballot items don't really care whether some of the bond issues pass or not. They win either way. Either a bond issue passes and they can fund the project, while shifting blame for the associated tax increase to the voters themselves, or it fails, and they can say, "See, the voters didn't really want this after all." So it's a convenient win-win in some City officials' minds.

They'll be doing the latter, not the former; these bond issues are practically rigged to fail.

Any Answer Will Do But the Real One

Am I wrong to think that the right senior staff -- dare I suggest even a city administrator? -- could have prevented, rehabilitated, or otherwise imposed some professionalism on these half-baked misadventures?

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