This week I received my mail-in ballot for the 2021 American Fork municipal election. Today, more swiftly than usual, I offer my handy, unapologetically opinionated guide for local voters.
On the ballot are a mayoral race, a city council race, and one proposition. (I have no idea why they call it Proposition #5.)
Before we start with the proposition, then move to the candidates, here’s some information:
Mail-in ballots may be mailed in, of course. You won’t need a stamp. They must be postmarked no later than Monday, November 1, 2021, the day before Election Day.
However, if you prefer to use a ballot drop box and save the City some postage, there’s one in American Fork at the public library, clearly marked, adjacent to the outdoor library return boxes. Official ballot drop boxes around the county will work too, even for this American Fork municipal election. Boxes will be available until 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, November 2.
Proposition 5: To Renew the PARC Tax for 10 Years
I’m voting for Prop 5. My detailed thoughts are in a previous post, “On Renewing the PARC Tax.”
I’ll add this. I also found in my mailbox a one-page trifold “Voter Information Pamphlet,” an official document from the City. It has arguments for and against the proposition, with a rebuttal of the argument against. No rebuttal of the argument for was submitted. If you’ve seen voter information pamphlets in past elections, from the city, county, or state, you’ll recognize the format.
The mayor and city council signed the argument for. The argument against is signed by Benjamin Bakaitis, whom I don’t know.
Be a bit of a policy geek for a few minutes, won’t you, and read the whole flier? If nothing else, read it as an act of gratitude for the right and opportunity to vote — on a tax, of all things.
You’ll see that the argument against calls the renewal of the PARC tax “a sales and use tax hike. ” But it’s not a hike. It’s a ten-year extension of an existing tax. Mr. Bakaitis also asserts that a sales tax disproportionately burdens low-income residents. The rebuttal in the pamphlet dispatches that argument without even mentioning that in Utah the sales tax rate for food is less than half the rate for everything else. (You’ll see how that fits when you read it.)
Prediction: The PARC tax passed originally several years ago by about a ten-point margin, 55% to 45%. I’m expecting renewal by a larger margin, perhaps 65% to 35%, plus or minus 5%. This is not a scientific or statistically sound prediction. It’s somewhere between a hunch and a half-educated guess.
Mayoral and City Council Races
Different voters have different ways of evaluating candidates. For example, in the aftermath of the recent candidate debates, someone — for the present purpose, her name doesn’t matter — declared on Facebook that she couldn’t vote for a candidate who publicly called her own children “kiddos.” Carissa George used the word once or twice that evening, so that voter will not be voting for her.
I take a different approach, and you’ll have your own thoughts. You should vote by your lights, not mine. But the deal here is, I tell you what and how I really think. Then I thank you for reading and, if you’re so moved, adding your own thoughts in a comment.
Back to the fray …
For me this year’s candidates in American Fork divide themselves neatly into two categories: incumbents and challengers. In a sense that’s usually true, especially in nonpartisan races. In this case, though, I mean that for me the two challengers are a lot alike in a significant way, and the incumbents have key things in common too.
I’m not one to assume incumbents are evil or corrupt simply because they are incumbents. Nor do I assume the superior virtue of challengers simply because they are not – yet – incumbents. But I do hold incumbents and challengers to different standards.
I don’t expect challengers to have the same command of details that incumbents typically display across a broad range of issues they’ve encountered during their tenures. We occasionally see challengers who’ve done their homework to that level on major issues, but I don’t expect this. I do expect awareness of the City’s existing activities in the major functions of a city government.
I try to avoid playing “gotcha” — making any candidate, incumbent or challenger, “an offender for a word,” if you’ll pardon my use of the Old Testament in a political discussion. (Isaiah 29:21, to be precise.) We all misspeak from time to time, especially under pressure. So I try to look for patterns and thought processes, not unfortunate phrasing and word choices. I do care what candidates say and how they say it, but I try to take them seriously enough to look for what they’re trying to say and how they think.
What I’ve Done to Learn About the Challengers
The challengers are Tim Holley (for mayor) and Carissa George (for city council). Their names were new to me, when they filed as candidates. I have since met them and chatted briefly with them one-on-one a couple of times. I also moderated some candidate Q&A for voting-age students at American Fork High School last month. (As the moderator, I listened in order to moderate, not to evaluate.)
Last week I attended the debates sponsored by the American Fork Chamber of Commerce and listened carefully. Later I listened to recorded audio from the event twice through, and some of it a time or two more. I’ve also studied Mr. Holley’s campaign website and even listened to excerpts of Ms. George’s podcasts (which are not about the campaign). I read the candidate profiles at the City website and John Mulholland’s report of his interviews with them all.
All this together doesn’t seem like a lot, when I’m trying to evaluate candidates I don’t already know. But it includes the major public opportunity for them to present themselves to voters in person: the debates. In Mr. Holley’s case it also includes his campaign website, his best published opportunity to explain his views and priorities in detail. So it’s more than nothing.
What I See
I find both challengers to be interesting, energetic, intelligent, and relatively articulate. I detect no debilitating level of ideological poisoning, which we sometimes see. I’m glad they’re running – in part because uncontested elections are bad for good government.
I like that Tim Holley has lived in other places – Hawaii, Atlanta, and Australia, for example. I like local officials who can draw on significant experience living elsewhere. I also think his military service is an asset. I like Carissa George’s affinity for communication; she’s a skilled podcaster.
If you have a major beef with an incumbent in this election, or with all of them, these challengers are not bad candidates. Had they been on the ballot in a couple of past elections I can recall, I’d have been glad and relieved. I’d have voted for them, because they’d have been better than the alternatives on my ballot.
However, when I think highly of the others on the ballot, in this case the incumbents, I have the luxury of expecting more. This time, it’s not enough that these two challengers’ personal characteristics — background, temperament, intelligence, etc. — impress me favorably. I look for specific preparation for the offices they seek — and in this I find both of them wanting.
They don’t appear to know some fundamental things about our city government — or city governments generally — which I think they should know before seeking elected office. These are things I think they would know, if they had paid careful attention to the City’s actual operations, even for just two or three months. If they do know these things, it’s not coming through in what they say — a different problem — but I think they’re intelligent enough that the knowledge I expect would show if they had it.
Before I explain, allow me to note that I’m sure they’re capable of learning what they presently appear to lack, among a thousand other things they’ll have to learn quickly if elected. But I’d rather see them run for city office when they’re better prepared, after at least a few years of serious involvement in the city at some other level.
Strange as it may sound, the primary basis for my judgment is their good ideas.
Tim Holley’s Good Ideas
In the debate mayoral candidate Tim Holley described a number of excellent policy ideas he wants to implement if elected, including these:
- Outside audits of City finances.
- Proactive planning for growth, including the infrastructure needed to support growth.
- Planning to upgrade the busy stretch of Main Street from 500 E to I-15.
(For discussion of these ideas and more, listen to his debate answers on affordable housing, traffic, and other topics.)
These are worthy ideas, things we should do, beyond question. Here’s the problem: we already do them.
- The outside audits are already required annually by state law. Some information on this is in each fiscal year’s Comprehensive Financial Statement, which is readily available online from the City and at the Utah Public Notice website.
- The City has a Planning Commission and an entire department devoted to that planning for growth. They do careful, detailed, forward-looking work.
- Plans for the ongoing upgrade of Main Street’s traffic capacity are already in progress, by UDOT in consultation with the City. (It’s a state road.)
These are fundamental functions of a city government. I don’t expect candidates to know everything, but I expect them to have a general sense of what’s already happening in these areas, even if they’re not steeped in technical detail as an incumbent might be. Some — not all — challengers in past elections have learned these things before they asked for our votes. Moreover, I prefer challengers who, when they think up a good thing we could do, are inclined to stop and wonder, and then to find out, whether we are already doing it.
There are important missed opportunities here. Every minute or paragraph a candidate spends explaining how we should start doing things we’re already doing is a minute or paragraph he could have spent telling us what he wants to change or accomplish in the city government as it actually exists. This would give voters a clearer sense of how he will govern, if elected.
Tell me this. American Fork’s population is over 33,000. The City budget exceeds $100 million. Many of the City’s official actions have the force of law. Do I expect too much of those who propose to govern it?
To be sure, there are things I like in Mr. Holley’s debate responses. For example, he has a business in Salt Lake County and one in Provo, and his comparison of local government responses to COVID-19 was apt. And he’s clearly aware that some issues are much larger than American Fork — affordable housing, for one — which limits the City’s capacity to address them.
Carissa George’s Good Ideas, Mostly
As you’ll hear in her statements and responses in the debate, one of Ms. George’s recurring themes is intentionality — in planning growth, for example. (Note her debate response on developers.) In this she seems to echo Mr. Holley’s yearning for careful planning, which in fact already exists.
She also says we should limit what people can build where. (Note the same debate response.) I think she should already know we have detailed and comprehensive zoning laws and a development code. These, too, are major functions of the City. They are difficult to miss from week to week, if one attends city council meetings in person or remotely or makes the rounds of City departments to learn about them before running for office, as some past candidates have done.
Another of her themes is efficiency, which is mostly a desirable thing in government. But declaring efficiency’s virtues and our need for it doesn’t move me. I would welcome substantive answers to questions like these: What specific inefficiencies exist? Why do they exist? Given the important distinction between governing and managing, how can a member of the city council help the City to address them effectively?
In discussing water, Ms. George said the City could support xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is a fine thing; how would she like the City to approach it? I’m not looking for an expertly vetted 40-page plan, but I’m looking for more than generalities. The city council is primarily a legislative body. I’m looking for someone sufficiently interested in policy itself to google “xeriscaping incentives Utah,” see what the Central Utah Water Conservancy District is implementing in Utah County and elsewhere, and consider whether the City can meaningfully enhance that effort or should simply avoid duplicating it (for efficiency’s sake).
Beyond a lack of the specific preparation I’ve discussed, I’m also mildly concerned by something she has mentioned more than once. For example, in her closing statement at the debate she said that the same demographics have been represented over and over again, and that others in the city deserve to be represented.
Diversity in representation is crucial to good government. Considering a range of views and interests often leads to better decisions. And even those who don’t prevail on a given question need to know their views were heard and considered. She and I probably agree on all of that.
But I’d rather not come to diversity by demographics — by labels, if you will. I prefer diversity in representation to come naturally, through the participation of excellent candidates from diverse backgrounds, who happen to be congenial enough with my politics that I can vote for them on that basis, not because of their gender, race, religion, age, etc. The sort of tribalism which believes that I cannot be represented well by someone who differs from me in some of these characteristics is trendy, to be sure, but it’s also toxic to a free society and good government.
I don’t look at a woman and think she can’t represent me well, because I’m a man. I don’t look at someone whose religious faith differs from mine, or who professes no faith at all, and think that person cannot represent my interests. And a person’s skin color has no bearing on my assessment of that person’s ability to represent me in government.
Granted, I’m just one voter. Others, as they get acquainted with Ms. George, will find that her view of things resonates with theirs. It’s good for voters to have candidates with whom they resonate. But I will continue to judge candidates by how I think they’ll govern, not by their relative positions in the grand intersectional hierarchy of our pathologically tribal time.
All of that said, I repeat: in some elections I’d have felt relief, if not outright enthusiasm, at having these challengers to vote for. In this election I think we can do better. If you disagree, you should by all means vote for them.
I’ve known Brad Frost for years, as mayor and before that as a member of the city council. I’ve sat in his office and talked policy, among other things. I’ve worked with him on various policies and projects. He’s low-key, a good listener, and a straight shooter. He’s plain-spoken but intelligent, with the ability to consider a broad range of interrelated issues for the present and the future. He was a steady hand through the actual and potential storms of COVID-19. After four years, I still like him as mayor.
My experience with Staci Valentine goes back, in its modest way, to her first campaign for city council four years ago. She has a good head for policy and government, she works hard, and I like that she’s candid about her thoughts. I’ve yet to find her playing political games at the expense of candor or truth. She’s done nothing in her four years on the city council to make me want to replace her with someone else.
I only recently met Ryan Hunter, and he only recently become an incumbent, but his reputation is stellar, and his resume is as impressive as you’re likely to see at this level of politics. He has served on the Planning Commission, the Steel Days Committee, and in other significant roles. I watched his debate performance with great interest, because, though he’s an incumbent, this is his first election campaign. I thought he did well for a rookie. In politics you take moments of clarity whenever you can get them, and one of the evening’s best moments was his observation that there is a difference between governing and managing, and the city council’s role is to govern.
When I like and trust the incumbents, and I think they’re doing well, and I’m not blown away by the challengers (though I may like them personally), I vote for the incumbents. I’m voting Brad Frost for mayor, and Staci Carroll and Ryan Hunter for city council.
If there are enough voters who are unhappy with the incumbents for whatever reason, and the challengers happen to win, I suspect they’ll serve well enough. But I predict that incumbents will sweep in this election — unless their supporters assume their votes are not needed and simply don’t bother to vote.
More than Tim Holley, I think, Carissa George may appeal to a growing demographic of younger, mostly less conservative voters. If they’re paying attention, I think a moderately strong third place finish is within reach for her. (In her race the top two take the seats.) If they’re not, she’ll finish a more distant third.
If the challengers happen to lose in 2021, they have good potential for 2023, 2025, or beyond – if they get involved in substantive ways with the City in the meantime. Their intelligence, energy, and personalities, combined with a good working knowledge of our city government and the people in it, could serve them — and us — very well in the future.
Whoever serves in these offices, one looming question of long-term consequence is whether — and if so, how — to make fiber-optic connectivity a citywide utility. I’m voting for the people I most trust to make decisions like that, to weigh all the complexities and competing interests and do what is best for both the city (meaning the residents, businesses, and other institutions) and the City (meaning the city government).
Thanks for reading — and sharing this article with other voters, if you’re so inclined. As you continue to acquaint yourself with the good people who are running for local office in American Fork this year, I hope something at AFelection.info will help.
Vote as you think best, of course. But always #learnBEFOREyouvote.