David’s Very Candid Notes on the June 29 Mayoral Debate

This is not an attempt to give a complete play-by-play report of everything each candidate said, though I will summarize the responses to a degree. It’s one guy’s notes and opinions, and you are duly warned: I’m not pulling punches here. Well, not very many. You may not like what you read, and you’re certainly entitled to your own views and your own vote.

I will do us both the favor of being candid.

You don’t need me to tell you everything they said. If you want to hear the candidates themselves, audio is available in a separate post. And I won’t always quote the questions here, though I do that in the post with the audio. And you may not need me to tell you what it means — but I’m about to try, for anyone who’s interested.

I note that Daniel Copper, one of the three mayoral candidates, did not attend the event and sent no public explanation or apology for his absence. We’re not always dealing with seasoned or well-advised candidates in local races, and that’s okay. But the thing you do when you have to miss an important event which your rivals are attending is this: You send a statement — perhaps even opening and closing statements — and a representative to read them. You include an apology for your absence and perhaps an explanation, briefly, before making your political case. None of the missing candidates in either race did this on Saturday.

One more warning. By contrast with my notes on the city council candidates and debate, you will think that I am dealing harshly with one of the mayoral candidates. In truth, I am.

His proponents may think I’m doing so because I already think he’s an exceedingly poor choice for mayor, as he was for city council four years ago. But they’re getting it backwards. I deal with him harshly here because the things he said at this event and the way he said them are not new, and have long been the major reasons why I’ve thought him a poor choice.

So, without further ado . . .

Opening Statements

Carlton Bowen

Carlton Bowen

Councilman Carlton Bowen‘s opening statement was a good start, in terms of displaying his views and his temperament.

He swore his fealty to low taxes and spoke of his vision to make American Fork free of debt. These are the core issues of his campaign. He hinted that the alternative — his opponents’ positions — is profligate spending and excessive borrowing, as if American Fork were Washington, DC, but it’s not. The real alternative is careful spending and prudent borrowing, when it makes fiscal sense.

If he’d told us again that government should run like a household, without debt — as we often hear from the extreme never-debt faction — I’d have asked him if he’s ever borrowed to buy a house, a car, or an education. Borrowing for such things is radically different from borrowing to buy a bigger (recreational) boat or cozy beachfront property in Billings.

He’s long been known for throwing around big numbers without context, remembering things that just weren’t so, claiming more credit than he deserves for things that happen, and accusing others, openly or otherwise, of significant character flaws, malfeasance, and poor judgment. We got bits of all those here . . .

He claims to have been astonished to discover, four years ago, that the City’s total debt load was more than the annual police department budget. Calling the debt too large on that basis is roughly akin to judging the family mortgage payment to be irresponsibly large because it exceeds the sum of the a month’s gas and electric bills.

Four years ago, he looked up the City’s total debt, during the discussion of the road bond. Now he says, “It didn’t seem like that question had been asked.” Had he been paying attention at the time, or were he disposed to credit opponents with intelligence and diligence, he would have realized or at least suspected that the City’s total debt is a major consideration in many fiscal discussions, and has been since long before he crashed the party — and was a key factor in the road funding discussion from well before he arrived.

He wants to keep secondary water rates “flat.” “That’s how it was sold to the voters,” he says. Again, had he been paying attention, he would have heard public discussions of the need for the rates to defray the costs of delivering the water, maintaining the system, and eventually replacing the system when it reaches the end of its useful life (to avoid future borrowing!). He would have heard that bond payments depended in part on future impact fees, and that if impact fees didn’t pull their weight — as they conspicuously did not during the recent long recession — those funds would have to be collected in the form of higher water rates or from the general fund (tax revenues).

He presents himself as the opposing force to leaders who have trouble resisting the urge to borrow for “whatever is next.” That might be a useful function, if we had had such leaders at the City at any point in recent years. It’s city government, not Washington, DC, and it comes out as a backhanded slur against honorable, responsible officials, of which more below.

Councilman Bowen is also notorious for petulant, obstructionist behavior in council meetings — voting no on practically everything, often because he hasn’t done his homework; attempting to delay actions on specious grounds (I didn’t receive that document . . . no, wait, I did); and calling out fellow council members who vote against him for violating the US Constitution and their oath of office. (Yes, he’s one of the ideologically poisoned folk who litter our politics.) We didn’t see this in his own opening statement, but we saw a bit of it in his behavior at the end of Councilman Frost’s.

Brad Frost

Brad Frost

Councilman Brad Frost talked about the businesses he has started and run and emphasized repeatedly that he is a hard worker. Whether he intended to contrast himself with Councilman Bowen, who is known to be less than energetic in filling council assignments and doing the reading necessary to prepare for meetings, I cannot say. Nevertheless, the contrast is real.

Councilman Frost misspoke at the end of his statement, saying, “I’m excited to continue to serve as your mayor.” The sense was that he’s served for more than five years on the city council, and he’d like to continue serving in the future, as mayor, but it didn’t come out that way.

In that sense, we saw a fair view of Brad Frost. He is a man of considerable virtues, political and especially personal, and he understands the need for public communications better than some local leaders, but verbal clarity is not one of his reliable gifts. He has his moments, and in general he may slightly exceed the rhetorical skills of the average man on the street. He will persist, and clarity will eventually emerge, I’ve found — but it might take longer than 120 seconds.

In any case, Councilman Bowen thought he smelled a few blood cells in the water and attacked, out of order, to correct him. When the moderator advised him that he’d have to address that in his next response, he backed down. Then he began his next response by smugly instructing the audience that J. H. Hadfield, not Brad Frost, is currently the mayor of American Fork. What didn’t need to be said at all could at least have been said with grace and humor, but what we got instead was smugness and snark.

Perhaps his ardent supporters were delighted by the episode, but it cannot possibly have advanced his electoral cause.

Pride and Puppies

The first question was nearly inscrutable, but seems to have been about problems in the building department, which is locally notorious for obstructing development. Mr. Frost spoke of the City having cut some positions and outsourced some of the work, to save money — (presumably the sort of thing that would please Mr. Bowen, I thought, perhaps even at the cost of diminished performance). Then he spoke of evaluating individual employees semiannually and working to improve their performance.

Mr. Bowen reported hearing complaints from developers about unnecessary delays, and he promised improved processes, but he couldn’t leave it at that. He had to claim that there have been unnecessary inspections, “above and beyond the code.” I’ll grant that it’s theoretically possible, but it seems unlikely, and it’s the sort of thing Mr. Bowen will toss out to make his point, whether it’s true or not. So now I want to know if he has any details or actual evidence of inspections in excess of those required or permitted by law. I suspect he has some constituents who complained that they didn’t need an inspection, when the City said they did. It’s not necessarily the same.

The second question was about preventing the Puppy Barn from spreading parvo disease — which sounded off the wall to me, as some of my questions probably sound to others. Neither candidate said anything about requiring dogs in the city to be vaccinated — do we do that? — but both took the opportunity to say nice things about puppies. And children. This is politics, right? Mr. Frost also talked about decision-making processes and the necessity to gather information and consider both sides of an issue.

Roads and Growth

A question about road funding moved Mr. Frost to describe money-saving measures such as personnel cuts, outsourcing, a change in the City’s insurance carrier, and requiring employees to participate slightly in their health care premiums. Rather than identifying specific future cuts, he emphasized the need to approach the City budget with pruning shears, not a chain saw. (He owns a landscaping company, you see.)

Mr. Bowen said we don’t need to impose new fees or make any cuts to fund our roads; we just need to reprioritize. It was not clear to me how reprioritizing is different from cutting some budget categories in order to fund increases in other categories, such as road repairs. Again, the rhetoric seems to flow freely, but we have trouble doing the math.

Responding to a question about managing future growth, Mr. Bowen declared himself to be pro-growth, Then he turned to the subject of impact fees. He opposed the recent increase in impact fees (fees which builders pay to defray costs of extending the City’s infrastructure to the new construction). He displayed no awareness that impact fees are not arbitrary. They cannot legally exceed the actual costs of extending the infrastructure. And if they are lower than those costs, the effect is that taxpayers subsidize development — because the uncovered costs have to come from the general fund. I don’t think he’d want that.

Mr. Frost didn’t make those essential points clearly either. He did explain what impact fees are and described the third-party analysis and the “very transparent process” which led to the impact fee increases. He also praised the Planning Commission for their work in preparing for growth.

What’s Good, What Needs Improvement

Asked about the performance of the current mayor, and opportunities for improvement, Mr. Frost praised Mayor James H. Hadfield effusively, especially his vast and detailed knowledge of the city’s infrastructure. (It’s worth listening to his response.)

Mr. Bowen echoed some of that and also praised the mayor for how he welcomes visiting Boy Scouts at city council meetings. Then he said, “What would I do differently as mayor, moving forward? I would resist any urges to add debt.”

Do the math on that one. He just said that Mayor Hadfield has had trouble resisting the urge to add debt. It’s not even very subtle.

For that matter, in the next breath he says that the City’s debt has shrunk from $56 million to $48 million in about three and a half years. So it doesn’t look to me as if anyone at the City has had too much trouble resisting the urge to add debt — unless we’re to believe that Councilman Bowen’s one vote on a council of five was enough to push the other profligate leaders so far in the opposite direction from their alleged desires.

He mentioned the 2013 road bond proposal, which would have added substantially to that debt. What he doesn’t say is that the city council never voted to incur that debt. They voted to put the decision to a vote of the people, having judged it to be the most economical approach to a very large problem in the long run. (Translation: They wanted to save the taxpayers money.) Maybe it was wrong of them even to ask?

He also didn’t say that cities have some avenues for incurring new debt which do not require voters’ approval — and the City hasn’t been running around using those, either.

In case you’re wondering, I think governments should incur debt only carefully and reluctantly, and not for ongoing costs like road maintenance. Some of the 2013 bond issue opposition incorrectly claimed that some or all of the funds were designated for ongoing road maintenance, as opposed to one-time rebuilding of failed roads, which would then be maintained through the normal budget. Had this been so, I likely would have opposed the bond too.

That said, I like having a voice on the council saying we shouldn’t borrow at all — but I want it to be a responsible voice, as it has been in the person of Councilman Jeff Shorter.

Principles for Resolving Conflict

The next question was, “What principles and processes do you use to resolve conflict and differences of opinion? Give an example.”

Mr. Bowen gave us a riff on the importance of principles, starting with a council member’s oath to support and uphold the Constitution. He noted that he opposed some arts funding on the basis of those principles. He said, “If you’re taking money through the power to tax and then redistributing it to a nongovernmental entity, that’s socialism.” He did make an exception for purchasing goods and services.

In general, he said, we have to ask if an expenditure falls within the proper role of government — which I grant is a very good question, especially if you understand the different roles of local and national governments. (That’s a larger discussion for another day.)

Towards actually answering the question posed, he did say that we have to listen.

But let’s go back to “socialism.” There are various species of socialism, but they all emphasize either government ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange (in short, the economy), or comprehensive regulation of the economy. This is generally in pursuit of some view of economic fairness and equality, and providing for the needs of all the people.

Remember when Chick-fil-A responded to a disaster in the Southeast, which had thousands and thousands of people sitting motionless in their cars on interstates, in their effort to flee, and Chick-fil-A sent their people up and down the rows of stopped cars, giving away free chicken sandwiches? Some zealots called that socialism too, because the people in those cars were getting something for nothing. To call a city’s funding of some arts programs socialism makes about as much sense. (For a longer discussion of socialism, see my “What Is Socialism?” at freedomhabit.com.)

Mr. Frost said that a good guiding principle is, “Alienating yourself does no good.” He went on to talk about working with citizens and staff, listening, and trying to learn all the facts before making a decision. In case anyone didn’t already realize he was talking about Mr. Bowen’s performance on the city council, he went on to cite Mr. Bowen’s accusations that his opponents were violating the US Constitution and their oath of office, by using available federal funds to replace some failing water infrastructure. Mr. Frost suggested that that private communication could be better than publicly alienating oneself in such cases. He said of such alienating behavior, “That’s what they do in Washington. . . . American Fork is not Washington. We do not need to bring it here. . . . We’re in it together, and we can act responsibly.”

Accomplishments on the Council

Both candidates are on the city council — Mr. Frost in the midde of his second term, and Mr. Bowen finishing his first. Asked to cite some of their accomplishments, Mr. Frost spoke of his long, unexpected battle to protect American Fork Canyon. He spoke of a related resolution which the council as a whole passed, but “Councilman Bowen was not there. . . . He voted against it, then turned on us.” As to the canyon, “Right now, we have a seat at the table, no matter what happens.” He also cited the cemetery expansion and the garden that was built as part of that project.

Mr. Bowen asserted the importance of sticking to core principles and pointing out when other people are violating them. On the matter of opposing the use of federal funds for infrastructure, he recalled challenging the council to cite in the US Constitution the passage which authorized that funding. It’s a fine question for federal officials and for voters in federal elections.

He said, “I have always been respectful towards my fellow council members” . . . “in pointing out those differences,” he later added. He probably believes that.

He said there was divisiveness from the beginning, when he arrived on the council, because he had opposed the road bond and the other four had supported it. This misstates the fact and the cause; Councilman Shorter had also strongly opposed the bond. Somehow, he was able to work with the council, when Mr. Bowen wasn’t.

As his greatest accomplishment on the council, Mr. Bowen cited reducing the city’s debt, primarily by defeating the road bond. But he didn’t do that. The voters did, and it happened nearly two months before his term on the council began.

Increased Traffic

Asked about plans to handle increased traffic in American Fork, Mr. Bowen mentioned his support for widening 100 East. Then he went several miles out of the city to talk about American Fork Canyon. Here is how he explained his opposition to the American Fork Canyon resolution Mr. Frost cited in an earlier answer:

“I viewed it as pro-EPA. I viewed it as pro- some UN stuff that is seeking to use local governments to restrict our freedom.”

He then returned to the question and noted that the City has the people, processes, and funding it needs, and we don’t need more. That sounds fairly reasonable.

Then he said this: “A lot of people don’t realize that our funding sources are self-adjusting. As more people move into the city, we collect property tax we weren’t collecting before. As we do more business, we collect sales tax that we weren’t collecting before. We’re collecting utility fees to pay for utilities that we weren’t collecting before. So this notion that you always have to be increasing the tax burden to adequately take care of government is false.”

First of all, no one in either municipal race and no one currently holding elected office in American Fork is saying that we always need to be increasing the tax burden to adequately take care of government. It’s a straw man. Or a straw person, in the present century.

Second, if I wanted to sound like I understood the numbers, I’d acknowledge that growth doesn’t just bring new revenue. It brings new costs too, in everything from roads and water to law enforcement and fire protection. So property taxes which come from growth are not purely a windfall, when the net effect is positive at all. And in American Fork’s case, sales tax revenues are highly subject to the buying behavior of consumers from outside the city, so city growth is partially irrelevant to those revenues. (At least where tax revenue is concerned, one probably ought to worry about consumer activity from outside the city being diverted to new opportunities in neighboring cities, especially Lehi, but that’s a separate topic.)

As Mr. Frost said, the council hasn’t increased the tax burden during his years on the council. In fact, I note, property tax rates were decreasing year over year even before Mr. Bowen joined the council.

Mr. Bowen interrupted to cite the PARC tax. But that (I note) was imposed by the voters, not the council, and by a significant margin. The council’s role was to give the people the choice.

Mr. Frost talked about one of the mayor’s roles, sitting on the board of the Mountainland Association of Governments, which is the official conduit for outside funding, including federal funding, for a lot of things. He said the following, obviously in response to Mr. Bowen’s fixation on Washington, DC, and national issues: “As mayor, I will look at ten square miles [American Fork], and Washington is not in those ten square miles. So if federal funds come . . . [I will lobby for them.]”

Closing Statements

As a distinction between candidates, Mr. Frost emphasized his temperament as one who listens, as a collaborator, bringing people to the table. This prompted a few snickers among some Bowen supporters sitting near me, because everyone knows (?) that if you call yourself a collaborator, you just confessed to being a communist. I doubt that Mr. Frost or much of the audience heard any of that.

He said: “I refuse to let Washington dictate American Fork City.” He drew another distinction, in that his campaign has chosen not to hitch itself to a congressional candidate, as Mr. Bowen has in connecting himself to Chris Herrod’s campaign. (Seriously, Mr. Bowen, robocalls? They probably cost you votes.) Mr. Frost doesn’t want to divert his focus from American Fork.

He talked about working with everyone and being inclusive with respect to the council.

Mr. Bowen’s particular breed of supporter probably would chortle at this next line, but in context, and with grownups who are not overboiled in ideology, it’s very effective: “I’d rather, if we’re going to make a mistake somewhere along the line, let’s make it together.” There’s a refreshing sense of realism and humility there — unless, of course, you think it’s coming from the mouth of a tax-borrow-and-spend liberal with no firm moral or Constitutional principles and a strong urge to cover his own backside. (Which it’s not.)

Speaking of people with that view, Mr. Bowen got the last word.

He praised American Fork, then spoke emotionally of urging the council, after his election but before his term began, to pass a resolution affirming the Utah Constitution’s definition of marriage as being the union of a man and a woman. This was in response to a federal judge’s ruling to the contrary at the time, and of course there were major developments in that policy area thereafter.

What Mr. Bowen said was that the federal judge “overturned our state constitution,” and that he didn’t have the authority to do that. The federal judiciary is, in fact, widely understood to have the authority to overturn state laws, even if they are within state constitutions, but there is a certain states-rights faction which feels otherwise.

If we’re giving Mr. Frost a pass for fumbling the “continue to serve as mayor” thing, we have to give Mr. Bowen a pass when he makes it sound as if the entire state constitution was overturned.

He did say that “we the people” are the ultimate source of governmental authority. Hard to argue with that. So the PARC tax, overwhelmingly approved by the people, must be legitimate, right?

But back to marriage. No one on the council at the time would help him with this issue. I wonder if he asked all five, and if all five gave him the right answer: “This is a state and federal issue, not a city issue, and we have our own work to do.”

“Where was the leadership?” Mr. Bowen asked. “Governor Herbert had to be brought to the legal fight kicking and screaming, practically.” Then he said that the governor and the Utah Attorney General only took up the fight after he, Mr. Bowen, ran for county commission on this issue (because the City wouldn’t do anything), failed at that, and then pushed the Republican Party to pass its own convention resolution on the subject.

Truth be told, I had my ear on those debates, and I don’t remember Mr. Bowen being a major voice in them, let alone the prime mover of governors and attorneys general.

In any case, then he turned his closing statement back to the City.

“We need to be concerned about direction our city is going. Is it overregulation? Is it overtaxation? Is it adding to our debt burden? Is it increasing our fees in subtle ways? You know these studies? That’s covered. Anytime the City wants to raise a fee, they’re going to do a study. You need to be aware of these things, and you need to vote to go in the right direction.”

I don’t know anyone who wants to be overregulated, overtaxed, or unnecessarily in debt. But in context, this is a bizarre statement. Most of what the city council has done in the past four years has been against Mr. Bowen’s objections. Yet our debt load is reduced by between 10 and 15 percent in that period, and property tax rates have steadily decreased. He’d like to say that’s because he’s been blocking the path of officials committed to such tyranny, but we have no such officials in American Fork. What he’s been trying to obstruct is good government. He could have contributed his passion, effort, and insight to that cause, but cooperation doesn’t appear to be an option when you think you’re alone in your righteous cause.

As regards studies, I favor a healthy suspicion of them. But studying impact fees carefully to see if they’re still covering the actual impact, or should be raised (or must be lowered), strikes me as necessary and wise. That said, if you tell yourself that all studies are manipulated and/or manipulative, you can more fully justify ignoring the facts and details of complex issues.

In Summary

In case I left any doubt, here’s my take on the mayoral field.

Mr. Frost does not have President Reagan’s gift with words. He does not have Mayor Hadfield’s dizzying and encyclopedic knowledge of infrastructure. But he’s smart, and he has an outsized share of common sense, a good heart, and proven skill and ample experience in working with people and with other levels of government, to protect American Fork’s interests and to get things done.

Mr. Bowen is a petulant, ideologically poisoned, fact-resistant obstructionist who doesn’t do the practical math and struggles to connect the theoretical dots. He is fixated on national issues while serving in local elected office. Not even the AF Citizens crowd, to which he owes his victory four years ago, is rising up for him this time. (In his defense, at least he cares about the nuts and bolts of national issues, isn’t foul-mouthed in public — or private, as far as I know — and is widely said to be a nice guy in his private life. So I have to prefer him to President Trump, at least personally.)

Mr. Copper was AWOL Saturday morning. He’s an exceptionally kind person and has done a lot for city residents, but this unexcused absence is very close to a deal-breaker for me all by itself. And I’ve seen nothing from him over the years to suggest he would excel as our mayor, nor any campaigning in this season to suggest that he wants to be.

To me, it’s a pretty clear choice.

Comments are welcome, as ever.

Note (8/1/2017): Thanks to the alert reader who pointed out that I said “water bond” three times in this post, when I meant “road bond.” I have corrected the error.

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