David’s Notes and Commentary: October 7 City Council Debate

Audio recordings of the October 7 city council debate in American Fork are available here, separated by question. The American Fork Chamber of Commerce also posted a single, long video recording of the event. This post is not intended to substitute for listening or watching, nor is it a play-by-play. I’ll tell you some of the things the candidates said and some of the things I think. So you are duly warned that this post contains more opinion than objective reportage.

I’ll link to a few audio segments and suggest that you listen to them. The full set is available at the link above.

Your comments are welcome, of course, and you certainly don’t have to agree with me.

The four candidates for city council on my ballot — it arrived today, and I checked — are Barbara Christiansen, incumbent Jeff Shorter, Kyle Barratt, and Staci Carroll. (I list them in the order in which they were seated at the event, alphabetically by first name. And I’ll use their first names here, to simplify your connections between these notes and the recordings.)

Opening Statements

Barbara mentioned serving on several City committees and emphasized her role as a watchdog in her many years of reporting on the City for one newspaper and another. Both of these strike me as good, preparation.

Barbara Christiansen

Barbara Christiansen

Jeff said he’s like a second term, but if elected will not later seek a third term. His primary agendum is to reduce debt. I can’t quibble with either of those points, as long as the latter pursuit doesn’t become impatient and draconian.

Jeff Shorter

Jeff Shorter

Kyle said that, if elected, he’ll be the fourth generation of the Barratts to serve the city. That’s a big deal for him, and I think it should be. It’s an honorable tradition, and extending it is a worthy aspiration.

Then he fumbled the ball. He noted that his monthly water bill has gone up from $55 to $115 in recent years — as has mine, by the way. But he got the causes and the history wrong. He said he spent 20 minutes on the phone with someone in Orem, and then talked to Provo too, asking them why they don’t have pressurized irrigation. It’s because they don’t need it, they said. So we didn’t need it either, he said. He called it a $100 million mistake.

The price tag was only about half that, but that’s not the biggest problem here.

First of all, he didn’t report talking to any of the cities around us who have pressurized irrigation, to see why they have it. Every city has a different water supply and somewhat different needs, and Provo’s and Orem’s needs have little bearing on American Fork’s.

Kyle Barratt

Kyle Barratt

Second, he may not realize — hardly anyone does, though it was discussed publicly at the time — that his $55 water/sewer bill was artificially low, because the City had let water rates fall behind the costs of administering and maintaining the system and delivering the water — which means the taxpayers were subsidizing water bills. (For a detailed discussion of water bills and other fees, their implications for our politics, and what we can learn about candidates when they talk about such things, see my new essay, “Water Bills, Fees, and Our Politics.”)

Third, the comparison shows the change in rates, but keeping them as low as they were was not a realistic option. The City had two reasonable options, when it finally faced the water music: pressurized irrigation or a treatment plant. Both were expensive, and they chose the cheaper option. So we would more appropriately compare what our water bills are now with what they would have been by now, had the City chosen the other option — because they couldn’t stay as they were.

Staci talked about her experience on the PARC Tax Committee, which is excellent preparation for a city council candidate, I think.

Staci Carroll

Staci Carroll

Tax Incentives for Business

There wasn’t much disagreement on this topic; all four candidates spoke in favor of prudent incentives. Each added some useful insight. I recommend listing to their discussion, for whatever you might learn from it about the topic.

 

The Benefit of Hindsight

One of the questions I submitted was essentially, looking back, is there a city council decision you would go back and reverse?

Jeff mentioned a recent vote asking UDOT to study an alternative route for a planned road near the Frontrunner station. This generated considerable heat and some light on Facebook not long ago. He voted for the resolution, but would now vote against it. (For my part, I need to learn more before I pass firm judgment on the same issue.)

In his rebuttal he spoke of the need for a city council sometimes to override a planning commission’s recommendations.

Kyle said he would have voted against the same measure, then turned back to pressurized irrigation and said he would have voted against it, when the city council approved it.

There’s a subtlety here; in essence what the city council did was put the matter to a vote of the people, and the people approved it overwhelmingly.

But there’s a bigger problem. He said they should have done a little more research and talked with some neighboring cities about their experiences with pressurized irrigation, and they shouldn’t have done it when it wasn’t absolutely urgent. He apparently studied the question during his graduate work, but his conclusions differ from what I saw at the time. I saw prolonged and extensive study and consultation by numerous officials and staff. In my view suggesting that these things did not happen disrespects the conscientious people who did them.

Finally, the City had already put off this matter until it couldn’t wait any longer — and the price was about five times higher as a result.

I’ve thought since meeting him a few months ago that he is intelligent and eager to serve, and I know he has plenty of formal education. So this response and his earlier mention of pressurized irrigation disappointed me. Such disappointments are common enough in politics, to be sure.

All of this said, I expect that, if he is elected and finds himself participating in similarly complex decisions, he will immerse himself in them, as other diligent leaders have done before.

Staci mentioned a recent vote in which the city council contradicted the planning commission and approved construction of some apartments, where the parking for the apartments is across a street. She cited safety concerns.

Barbara said she would have voted against purchasing the broadband system — which was a good idea at the time, she said, but just after that the state enacted a law prohibiting cities from promoting such things, thus crippling the City. (I too thought it was a great idea at the time, though it soon proved to be an albatross, as some have said. Most people don’t realize that, after the City finally sold the system to a private company, that company defaulted, and the City owns the system to this day — so the albatross is very much alive.)

In her follow-up, she spoke of needing to balance property rights with safety and other concerns. I liked this thought: “The health, safety, and welfare of the residents of a community should be at least equal [considerations] to the property rights of individuals and corporations.”

Roads

Asked about the priority of road repairs and how they voted on the road bond in 2013, all four candidates said it was a high priority, and that they voted against the road bond.

Kyle emphasized that roads are his highest priority, and the others spend some time beating him up a bit, explaining that roads are important but not all-important, and we can’t starve other needs. He hadn’t said we should, though probably overdid it — but they overdid their responses too. He clarified what he meant in his follow-up.

Where Kyle disappointed me again was at the end of his statement, when he said that what was wrong with the road bond proposal was a lack of transparency in the process. He reiterated this later, after briefly answering an unrelated question, adding that there wasn’t clarity as to why the City was asking for a particular number. I’m just one guy, but I was listening, and I thought that was plenty clear at the time. And I recall the City being unusually transparent and communicative about the road bond, as it was about pressurized irrigation before that. Neither was an unmitigated triumph of public communication, fit for the next generation’s textbooks, but I thought both efforts were about as good as we can reasonably expect in a small, sparsely-funded city — and better than we had seen previously, and better than we’ve seen in some cases since.

In her follow-up Staci mentioned that she voted against the road bond because we shouldn’t borrow for ongoing maintenance. I agree in principal, but there’s a factual error here. The road bond would have funded a one-time rebuilding of failed roads; ongoing maintenance was a completely separate budget. I recalled her speaking of this matter in the past, to the effect that she voted against the bond for that reason, but later learned that it wasn’t for maintenance and would have reconsidered her vote. I spoke with her afterward, and she confirmed this.

I recommend listening to this entire discussion. It’s about six and a half minutes, and each candidate both made some good points and articulated a slightly different position from the others’.

 

Third Place

If Brad Frost is elected mayor, which seems quite likely, his seat on the city council will be vacant, with two years left in the term. Asked if the third-place finisher in this election should be named to replace him, the four candidates essentially agreed that such a finisher would warrant consideration, but that it shouldn’t be automatic.

The City will ask for applications, and the city council will choose an applicant to fill the seat, as set forth in state law (Utah Code 20A-1-510). It makes perfect sense to consider the third-place finisher and probably even the fourth, if they apply. In this instance, Ernie John, who finished a very close fifth in the primary, would be a strong candidate too — less by virtue of his finish that because of other qualifications.

That said, Staci and Barbara said something insightful, which I might not have thought of, had I been answering: It’s important to see who else is on the council, and to consider which applicant’s skills and background best complement the others’. It was an insight worthy of incumbents.

I thought that Kyle and Jeff, who finished third and fourth in the primary, were a bit more ardent in arguing for consideration on the basis of having put in the work of campaigning. There’s nothing wrong with that.

City Licensing Processes

Responding to a question about the City’s reputation for being difficult in matters of licensing and inspection of new businesses . . .

  • Barbara noted some recent improvements, offering a few details.
  • Jeff noted the diligent work of Councilman Rob Shelton in those and other similar improvements.
  • Kyle spoke of clarity and transparency again — this time quite appropriately, in my view — and echoed Jeff’s praise of Rob.
  • Staci offered the clearest details of recent improvements.

When You Failed

Asked about “a time you failed . . . and what you learned” . . .

  • Jeff told a fine story about playing football when undersized, then deftly and dryly made a connection to public service.
  • Kyle talked about building a shed slightly larger than is allowed without a permit, and learning that close isn’t close enough.
  • Staci talked about being in charge of creating an application for PARC grants. Her first try was long and excessive. She listened to feedback and did better the next year.
  • Barbara talked about failing sometimes to speak up in defense of a person or an ideal, and learning from that to go ahead and speak.

I recommend listening to this four-minute segment to get a sense of the candidates as people.

 

Public Transportation

This was another of my questions. I  asked about the importance of public transit in view of future growth, and how it can be managed so it’s good for the city.

Kyle said it will be important in the future, and he doesn’t like how UTA operates at present, one problem being transparency. He’d like the City to find ways to hold UTA accountable for its methods and spending.

Staci said we need a process for getting from “all roads, all cars” to public transportation. (I note that there is already a reasonably well-publicized plan for that, and there has been for a long time. I’m looking forward to the light rail system it includes for Utah County.)

Barbara said we can learn from other cities’ successes and mistakes, and that UTA should be transparent and responsive to the people.

Jeff said we shouldn’t be putting in systems that don’t pay for themselves, citing particularly the rail system. (Again intruding my view, I’d like us to admit that car travel infrastructure too is very far from self-sustaining. We’ve subsidized automobile travel to the tune of many billions of dollars — beyond UTA’s wildest fiscal fantasies. To ignore this in decrying subsidies for public transit is common but short-sighted.)

Best and Worst Things about American Fork

This one made me smile, because candidates have to be careful listing bad things, and I wondered if any of them would cite anything negative. Barbara and Staci made a very politic choice to say only good things. Jeff and Kyle mentioned some bad things but handled them well.

I suggest that you listen to this segment too; it’s about four minutes. When you do, listen for . . .

  • Staci on what surprised her when she went out knocking on doors. (Apologies for the partial spoiler, but it might encourage you when you consider running.)
  • Barbara on being in homes as a reporter. (She’s been in mine.)
  • Jeff on finding ways other than law enforcement to help youth and others who are at risk.
  • Kyle on the eye-opening experience of participating in the Citizens Police Academy. It’s a topic for another day, I suppose, but if you ever get a chance to participate, don’t pass it up.

 

Privatize Steel Days?

It was four choruses of “no.”

Heck no.

We love Steel Days . . . corn dogs of unusual size . . . huge volunteer participation . . . community spirit . . . memories . . .

And Rob Shelton is a superhero. (I’m paraphrasing.)

Rob Shelton

Councilman Rob Shelton, Alleged Superhero

Closing Statements

Sometimes candidates forget to thank the event hosts, the (meager) audience, the sponsors, etc. These candidates remembered.

Jeff said he enjoys serving on the council and would like four more years, and praised the mayor and his colleagues on the council.

Kyle talked about standing alone, when necessary. He emphasized education (previously overplayed, but not here) and his long family legacy of public service — which he discussed in some detail, but it didn’t feel overdone. Again, I think it’s worthy and honorable.

Staci emphasized working to understand the roots of problems, as well as her “three C’s”: citizen engagement, collaboration, and creative solutions.

Barbara said that five council members and a mayor aren’t enough to do what needs to be done. She spoke of keeping residents informed, listening to them (er, us), and collaborating.

Final Thoughts

The moderator was Joe Phelon (“FEE-lawn”), Board President of the American Fork Chamber of Commerce. He did quite well, I thought, and things generally went smoothly. There were a couple of bumpy moments, but only because he was faithful to the wording of written questions from the audience, rather than filtering out some unclarity and confusion before posing them. Different moderators have different styles, and things were figured out quickly enough in any case. I liked that he kept answers to 60 seconds, but also offered the opportunity of 30-second rebuttals. The result was a well-paced hour.

The audience, not counting participants, was only about a dozen. This was disappointing. As such events go, it was above average in substance and in focus on the issues, which speaks well of all four candidates.

As to the candidates . . .

I’ll be voting for Barbara Christiansen and Staci Carroll. Despite being challengers, not incumbents, they have a good grasp of details, complexities, and the history of issues, and they’ve clearly been doing their homework. If I could only vote for one, I’d probably have to flip a coin or something. Both are unusually promising.

That said, I think Jeff Shorter would be a good choice too. I think he’s done well in office already and would do well in a second term.

If we found ourselves going through candidates as quickly as BYU has been going through quarterbacks lately, I wouldn’t hesitate to mark my ballot for Kyle Barratt. I think his learning curve would be steeper than the others, but he’s still a strong candidate for a first-time challenger. He is intelligent and would learn quickly.

He and perhaps you may think that I’ve picked on him unfairly here. I have certainly done so disproportionately — but I would have said the same of any other candidate who said what he said. In any case, his settling for common and convenient assumptions rather than a deep understanding of some past issues probably would not do great future harm, and I would expect him to be conscientious in probing future issues. So he’s not a bad choice, and he might well be your choice. He’s just not mine.

Come to think of it, maybe he could move BYU’s offense? But I digress.

I said before the primary that we had a particularly strong field of city council candidates. That’s even more the case, now that we’re down to four. The only way for a voter to go badly wrong in this race is not to vote.

If you wish, follow this link to all the audio from the event (except the opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance).

Or check out my recent article about how fees and water bills work, and what we can learn of candidates when they discuss them:

Water Bills, Fees, and Our Politics

Thanks for reading. And don’t forget to mail your ballot before Election Day, which is November 7.

[This post was slightly edited after original publication, mostly for style and clarity. — DR (a few hours later)

2 Replies to “David’s Notes and Commentary: October 7 City Council Debate”

  1. Thanks again David for providing the audio of the event. I especially appreciate how you broke the 1 hour up into Q&A sections so it was easy to take a break and come back to it later, or just listen to the topics that interest me. And thank you for your insightful comments and analysis!

  2. Thank you, David, for taking the time to put this together. You made it easy and quick for me to learn about the candidates. The 4 minute audios were great!

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