I asked members of the American Fork City Council what they look for in city council candidates. I thought their view from the inside might be instructive. I also asked them about the work load, because conscientious prospective candidates want to know what it will take to do the job right.
Three of five city council seats are up for election in 2023, but only one incumbent, Clark Taylor, told me he’s running. The other two, Rob Shelton and Kevin Barnes, have publicly announced their intention not to run — Councilman Shelton after three terms in office and Councilman Barnes after two terms.
(Of course, until June 1, there are no candidates, and we’ll only know for sure who’s in and who’s out after June 7, the end of the filing period.)
What to Look for in a Candidate
All five city council members sounded common themes. Where their own votes in a city council election are concerned, they’re looking for:
- men and women who work well with others, and who can disagree without being disagreeable;
- people who already have a resume of civic engagement — not necessarily at the City, but if it is at the City, service on at least one committee or coaching in the recreation programs, working in the arts, etc.;
- candidates who know about City government and don’t just assume that all the stereotypes and talking points from national and state government apply;
- overlapping with the last two, candidates who are energized by more than a single issue, who won’t check out once they’ve accomplished — or failed to accomplish — the thing that motivated them; and
- the words good and honest came up almost as often as work.
In each interview we recalled past candidates who failed the third test above. We’ve seen candidates who declared their intention to move the City to a balanced budget, which is so good an idea that it’s already required by law, and it already happens — for the past 150 years, said Councilman Ryan Hunter.
We’ve also seen candidates who ran, and prospective candidates who wanted to run, to change something in the local schools (wrong elected body for that) or to undo state or federal mandates of one sort or other (not within the city council’s authority).
To voters with a basic understanding of things, these are neon signs announcing that the candidate knows very little about the office he or she seeks and hasn’t taken it seriously enough to learn. And learning is very much the theme. The learning curve is steep — especially for the first year or two, Councilman Barnes said — and the packet of materials to review for each meeting often runs to several hundred pages. A certain humility is wanted too; often even a conscientious candidate won’t understand issues well enough to know what needs to be done, until that candidate wins and has been in office for a while, as Councilman Taylor emphasized.
Councilman Barnes added, “I get worried when you have all the same like-minded individuals and no questions get asked.” Of his own intention not to run for a third four-year term, he said, “Two terms is a lot.” He cited George Washington’s example: “Get in, serve, get out. Nobody’s irreplaceable. New eyes and new blood are always good, people with new ideas — as long as they’re reasonable, decent, open-minded people.”
Councilwoman Staci Carroll looks for “someone who is good at working with other people. I want someone principled, but if they’re only going to stick to one thing they’re interested in, that’s a candidate I’m not interested in. There are so many different things [to know and do].” She also seeks “someone who listens well, who can get up and explain themselves. You don’t have to be perfectly articulate.” Of candidates who are convinced they already know everything, she said, “I’m not interested in that either.”
Councilman Hunter looks “first and foremost” for candidates who will “vote their conscience.” He wants “someone who wants to contribute. I like someone who’s been around the city,” more than just attending one council meeting, then running for office.
Councilman Barnes mentioned a new $55 fee to file as a candidate, which he hopes will discourage frivolous candidates. He also said, “If you’re going to run for city council this [year], I think you ought to be in every city council meeting you can attend from now on. You should be there. You should be sitting quietly in the back. You shouldn’t watch it on the computer. You need to be there and watch the interactions and see what’s going on. Get a feel for it, make some notes, then follow up with council members or the mayor or [City Manager] David Bunker about what the position involves.”
Councilman Taylor said that often “it’s not even really politics. It’s just people willing to work.” He said, “I want somebody with some juice, who is willing to work and understands what it takes, and can have an opinion but isn’t going to be thin-skinned. They don’t have to agree with me, but as long as we can disagree and work [together], we can accomplish so much.”
Which brings us somewhat neatly to our next topic: what it takes.
City Council Work Load
Councilman Barnes said, “You have to have time to do more than come to one meeting every Tuesday” — referring to the evening council meetings and the afternoon work sessions which are mostly held on alternate Tuesdays.
I asked each council member about the typical weekly time commitment. Their answers all fell within the 10-to-25 hours per week range, with the understanding that some weeks are more demanding. For example, there’s a two-day retreat each year to focus on budget and priorities, which isn’t mandatory but is important to the member’s and the council’s effectiveness.
There was near-consensus that 10 hours per week is a minimum to be effective — then the council member I was interviewing would give a higher number when I asked how many hours he or she actually devotes in a typical week.
Each council member mentioned “the packet,” the readings to prepare for meetings. “You read a ton between Friday and Tuesday night,” said Councilman Hunter.
Besides the meetings and the readings, each council member is assigned as a nonvoting member of one or more city committees. “You’re not there to throw your weight around,” Councilman Barnes explained, “but to be a good resource and a liaison.” Residents who are veterans of city council meetings are familiar with the agendum near the beginning of many meetings which involves council members reporting on their committees, among other things.
Council members emphasized the importance of being available to city residents, even to the point of knocking on doors and holding neighborhood meetings when it isn’t an election year.
How to Get Involved
Since we’ve mentioned council members being available and prospective candidates getting involved, let’s turn finally to a broader but related question: How can residents get involved in the community, and especially with the City?
Every council member recommended talking to a council member or the mayor about opportunities to get involved. There are numerous city committees, and most or all of them could use more members, new blood, and new ideas. There’s an appointment process that goes through the mayor and council, but (if I may speak from experience) it’s painless.
Councilman Barnes recommended deciding what your interests are and attending a meeting or two of a related committee, to see if it’s what you want to do.
Councilman Hunter emphasized that you don’t need a committee or other official role to help. Just “walking down a stretch of road and picking up trash” helps the community.
Councilman Taylor noted that the City often needs volunteers who are not committee members to help with Steel Days, the Senior Center, arts programs, recreation programs, and more. “Speak to any city council member. Check the website.” (Others mentioned the monthly newsletter.) “It will take some initiative,” he said.
Councilwoman Carroll would like to find more effective ways to publish volunteer needs and opportunities, to make them more visible. She expressed disappointment that some recent calls for volunteers have been almost fruitless.
Here’s a link to the next post:
And here are links to the other posts in this series:
- Water and Fiber
- City Finances and Inflation
- Growth and Its Challenges (including Development)
- My Own Reflections
Thanks for reading!