When I posted audio, one file per topic, from the October 16 American Fork City Council candidate debate, I promised to return with my own thoughts. It’s taken longer than I hoped, but Election Day is still almost two weeks away, and this is that post. (The American Fork Chamber of Commerce posted video of the event at its YouTube channel. See also frequent contributor John Mulholland’s TL;DR.)
If you want to know what every candidate said on every topic, please listen to the audio. Getting it straight from the candidates is best. Here I’m choosing the things I want to discuss, not trying to report or even summarize everything.
I’ll tell you what I think and why. if you’re here just for information, not opinion and analysis, exit after the next section, and thanks for reading.
The American Fork Chamber of Commerce sponsors and hosts at least one such event in every local election cycle. They do it well. They publicize it effectively. They are careful to be nonpartisan. It’s important and I thank them. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
The audience for this event, not counting candidates, was about 70 — not the largest I’ve seen, but about twice as large as usual. Well done, American Fork! I recognized plenty of regulars, but I was pleased to meet others who had never attended such an event before.
They Sound Like Incumbents
Sometimes there’s an obvious gulf between incumbents and challengers. I expect incumbents to show a good grasp of details across issues, processes, and City organization, and they almost always do. I set the bar lower for challengers.
In challengers I look for (but don’t always find) evidence that they’ve worked to understand major issues and City operations. They rarely have a good grasp of every major issue, but I want them the have a good grasp of some things.
Four of these five candidates sounded like incumbents, though only one is. And the fifth is one of the better-prepared challengers I’ve seen.
Clark Taylor an incumbent. Ernie John has 20 years on the water management side of local government and has done his homework. Ken Sumsion sserved three terms in the Utah Legislature. Jeff Shorter previously served one term on the city council.
That leaves Tim Holley. When he ran for mayor in our last city election, as a sort of sacrifical candidate opposing a very popular mayor, I dismissed him as unprepared. He had high ideals, sound general principles, and hope — all good things — but little else. That was two years ago. Since then, he’s been doing his homework, attending meetings, watching the City work, studying issues, and talking to people. Now I’m favorably impressed. For a challenger, he’s well prepared.
All five had some good moments during the debate. I listened carefully from the front row, making scarcely any notes, because I knew I’d be reviewing the audio later. I listened to much of the audio while preparing it for posting here. Then I listened to it again from beginning to end while preparing this post.
My three votes were already firmly set. I’ve had a pretty clear sense of the candidates and their stances on key issues since before the primary. It was an interesting and useful evening for me anyway.
So I’ll tell you what I think. That’s the deal here. Your thinking differently is fine with me, even if you think I’m unduly critical of two candidates here.
Who They Are
In the order in which they were seated that night, and based on their opening statements . . .
Tim Holley is about a generation younger than the other four. He’s old enough to be a US Marine and to have started a small IT business with his partners and shepherded it through the US pandemic response, which killed hundreds of thousands of other small businesses.
Ernie John is President of American Fork Irrigation, Chair of American Fork Metropolitan Water District, a board member of of North Utah County Water Conservancy District, and manages the American Fork Canyon watershed.
Ken Sumsion is a CPA who works for BYU, after corporate experience in other states. He served six years in the Utah Legislature.
Jeff Shorter is an attorney in Salt Lake City. He has one city council term under his belt, beginning in 2014 (after the 2013 election).
In his opening statement Clark Taylor spoke less of himself and more of his dad, who was an American Fork City official for many years. He did note his own involvement over the years in the completion of Art Dye Park. He didn’t mention that he’s served multiple terms on the city council, including the current one.
American Fork’s municipal fiber optic project is a key dividing line in this race. My recent post here compares popular talking points with actual facts.
Taylor, John, and Holley are for the project. John compared it to roads, sewer, and water, in its future (if not present) importance, and noted the need to draw businesses to the city. Taylor pointed out that some residents and even businesses in the city can’t get high-speed broadband because the private sector doesn’t extend its service everywhere. And he noted that the project is a public-private partnership. Holley noted the importance of looking years down the road and also explained that there will be multiple ISPs in the City system, and the system itself doesn’t need to make a profit, unlike the big telecom companies’ offerings.
Sumsion and Shorter are against it. Some of their stated reasons are positions reasonable people might take — for example, thinking this isn’t a proper role of government, and government doesn’t compete well with the private market, and even (in Shorter’s words) “don’t cut into the streets again.” However, from the beginning they’ve wrapped these points in so much misinformation and misdirection that there’s not a lot they say on the subject that could simply be called truth.
My separate post on fiber addresses these arguments and more, including a recurring question: the next technology is coming, so why invest in this one? It also notes that different levels of government have different roles and constitutional limitations. In this debate at least, these two candidates made no distinctions between the roles, responsibilities, limitations, or even the spending habits of different levels of government.
Rec Center and Beyond
Answers to a question about the American Fork Recreation Center may have broader implications.
Taylor, Holley, and John (all surnames!) spoke of the Rec Center’s popularity, saying that “quality of life” draws people to American Fork. I happen to agree, but this wasn’t the interesting part.
That came when Sumsion said that things like the Rec Center “should be totally stand-alone” and “paid for by those who use them.” He listed the widow, the grandmother, and the single mom as examples of people who shouldn’t have to pay for services they don’t use. He said he has a Rec Center membership, and he keeps telling the City they should raise his fee.
Shorter echoed the same themes.
Here’s why these ideas matter beyond the Rec Center.
For a long time, for the sake of building community, residents of cities and towns have considered it wise and desirable to have their local governments supply some services which are not strictly necessary to the sustaining of physical life. These often include recreation centers, yes, but also art, music, and theater programs; libraries; trails; and sports and recreation programs. Though less essential than utilities such as water and sewer, such programs enhance individual lives and the overall quality of life in a community.
When a program or facility of this sort covers most of its operating costs though program receipts — fees, ticket sales, grants, etc. — it’s doing well fiscally. If it covers all of them, it’s doing exceptional well. Very few programs, even popular, successful ones, can be “totally stand-alone,” because there are infrastructure costs too.
A fiscally successful girls softball city league might cover all its operational costs through fees — but the City would typically bear the substantial costs of purchasing land for the ball fields, building them, and then maintaining them. If program fees had to pay those costs too, either fees would be so high that only the wealthy could participate, or there would be no program at all. (Both outcomes are the same, unless you’re among very wealthy.)
Maybe you see this coming . . .
Insisting that programs pay their own way “totally,” (as Sumsion says), through fees and other receipts, makes a decent sound bite for a certain sort of candidate and voter. But it’s also a recipe for dismantling arts and recreation programs which enrich the lives of many American Forkers who are not among the very wealthy, including me and my family.
Perhaps Shorter, Sumsion, and their families are well enough off that they could have whatever they choose of these blessings from a private source. Good for them. Maybe the quality of life the rest of us enjoy in American Fork matters less to them than to us. Maybe they hope you won’ t scrutinize such ideas until after you’ve voted them back into political power.
This is not just hypothetical. Sumsion is widely known as a key figure behind opposition to the PARC tax (parks, arts, recreation, culture) when it was first implemented and again when it was renewed.
Mr. Shorter sounded his recurring theme: “I agree with Ken.” He said he’s “very anti-tax” but did vote for the PARC tax when he was on the city council.
If the PARC tax, which is a small sales tax increment, is a good thing, at least to Shorter, does that mean it’s okay with him if widows and single moms from American Fork pay for our stuff, as long as their counterparts in neighboring cities pay some too?
Sumsion and Shorter are in an uncomfortable position. The voters passed the PARC tax by a strong margin originally and an even larger margin when it came up for renewal — against Mr. Sumsion and his faction’s opposition both times. Criticizing it isn’t a winning strategy. Yet it is a tax, and it’s imposed on American Forkers, not just out-of-towners. What’s a candidate to do?
Move on to roads, maybe.
In 2013 Ken Sumsion was a driving force behind a wave of misinformation and midirection which defeated a road bond proposal and swept Jeff Shorter and a second, decidedly inferior candidate onto the city council. In a debate that year, Shorter said it would be better to drive on gravel than to borrow a dime for road repair.
This year he said, “Our roads are always going to be terrible. . . . It’s just the climate we live in.” Mr. Holley took issue with that, saying he’s been in places with extreme weather conditions where the roads were well kept (rather like roads in our city which belong to the county or state, come to think it).
Taylor and John talked details: The budget included $12 million this year for roads, the most ever, Taylor said, and nearly half of last year’s tax increase went to roads. John emphasized that proper road maintenance dramatically increases the life span of a road, thus dramatically reducing costs over time. “I don’t believe in kicking the can down the road,” he said. “I believe in doing it the right way.” Holley echoed this.
Sumsion said the funding for the 200 South project should have been put to the vote of the citizens — like every other major expenditure (he said in another response). I recently wrote of this politically convenient devotion to pure democracy, with its accompanying distrust of representative government, in “Weaponizing Democracy.”
Shorter echoed Sumsion’s “let the citizens vote” theme, invoking widows again. I don’t see how a public vote would be more likely to reduce the tax burdens of widows. Most voters would likely see the wisdom of long-awaited upgrades to 200 South near the Frontrunner station and thereabouts, as they saw the need for a second fire station a few years ago and passed that bond over the objections of Sumsion’s faction. So the widows wouldn’t be any better off — except that the referendum itself would have cost the City (and therefore the taxpayers, including the widows) some money, and the delay would likely have increased the costs of the project.
Unless they were able to defeat it. In that case 200 South would continue to be unsafe, inadequate, and crumbling, and future candidates could complain that the City is negligent with respect to its roads. (In politics-as-usual, a problem is far more valuable than a solution.)
In the candidates’ responses to questions about what they would never bend on and the like, public safety was a popular answer.
Sumsion reemphasized that “big issues, big projects should all go to the people, regardless of what the law may say.”
So we should, in large matters, suspend the tried and familiar processes of representative government in favor of direct democracy — even if the law says otherwise? It’s another empty, convenient sound bite.
The historic former Harrington School, now the Harrington Center for the Arts, figured prominently in three candidates’ responses to a question about revitalizing downtown. I won’t dive into the old landmark’s history. It’s now a non-profit venture, not a City project. It’s looking more like a going concern and less like pie in the sky than ever before. Its board has lobbied every candidate who would talk to them, I believe — because even a private concern needs the City’s cooperation to succeed downtown, and City resistance could be fatal.
John called the Harrington Center “a key part” of downtown’s future. It “could jump-start” our downtown. Taylor said it “would do much to bring traffic downtown.” “The Harrington Center has an amazing plan,” said Holley.
On the broader subject of downtown, Taylor, Sumsion, and Shorter focused on traffic, especially Main Street, which as a state road is not under the City’s jurisdiction. That limits the possibilities. Shorter and Taylor noted the importance of developing other east-west traffic corridors, such as the new Canal Boulevard, the forthcoming 700 North connector, and a future corridor south of the freeway.
Sumsion said that downtown businessmen (perhaps he meant to include businesswomen too) should get together, decide what they want, commit their own funds, and do it. The obvious implication is, City funds should not be used. Downtown businesses are entirely on their own.
Do only businesses, not the City, have an interest in downtown’s health, in Sumsion’s view?
In his turn, Mr. Shorter said, “I kind of agree with Ken.”
I keep thinking of something Mayor Frost has said: “We’re building a city.”
2022 Property Tax Increase
When discussion turned to a 2022 property tax increase, anyone in the audience who was unfamiliar with how some things work behind the scenes might have wished for more explanations from the candidates. There isn’t much time for such things in a debate response, but Ernie John and Clark Taylor made good attempts to explain certified tax rates.
Clark said it’s like paying 2023 bills with 2008 dollars. (2008 was American Fork’s last property tax increase, until 2022.) We could also say it’s like trying to pay 2008 bills with 2023 dollars — that is, trying to buy the same stuff with the same number of dollars, but the dollars’ buying power is dramatically smaller.
If your head has already begun to spin, join the club. It’s genuinely complicated. I’ve attempted to explain some of this at great length before. I’ll try a shorter explanation in a separate post. Meanwhile . . .
I liked John’s response. He said he won’t promise never to raise taxes. We kicked the can down the road, he said, and we made it really painful, and we shouldn’t do that.
Sumsion said we didn’t need the tax increase (which Taylor explained went to road work and increased public safety salaries). At least we wouldn’t have needed it for those things, if we hadn’t appropriated $9 million for the fiber project.
Holley correctly pointed out that you can’t always move dollars from one bucket to another. (He’s right; sometimes it’s not even legal.) At present I can’t evaluate how relevant that is here — but we’ve needed a tax increase for some time. The Utah Legislature built that into the system (of which more in that separate post on taxes).
Shorter followed Sumsion’s answer with his familiar “I agree.” He added that when federal spending is “out of control,” cities should cut taxes. They should reduce city employees. These are lazy sound bites.
First, when is federal spending not out of control? Second, local governments have different roles; federal folly doesn’t reduce our need for clean water, police and fire protection, and passable roads. And third, I wish another candidate had asked, Which employees would you cut first? Which departments are overstaffed, and how do you know?
We’re in the realm of campaign sound bites, not analysis. No answers to such questions will be forthcoming.
Holley also noted that he attended the Truth-in-Taxation hearing for that increase. This suggests more questions I wish someone could have asked.
Mr. Sumsion and Mr. Shorter, were you at the hearing in 2022? If not, why not? And if you are so sure these issues, and the funding for the 200 South project, should have been put to the voters instead of a city council vote, why didn’t you file for a referendum and circulate petitions when you could? Did you fail to do these things because they weren’t that important to you at the time, because you weren’t running for office yet and didn’t need the talking points?
Housing and Development
One question addressed housing and development. I looked for substantive awareness of the issues, something beyond platitudes about the importance of housing and families and how it’s complicated.
Shorter said we should welcome growth — welcome people — but never change an R-1 zone (single-family residential) to anything else, not commercial, not multifamily, etc. I agree — except I’d back off the absolute a bit and say that such changes should be made only after thorough consideration, and not often.
Taylor’s answer was the most substantive, as befits the incumbent. He pointed out that 2022 state legislation requires high-density, walkable development near a FrontRunner station. He also explained that the City prefers to keep high-density development near the freeway and other major arteries, so larger roads take the increased traffic load — which sounds prudent to me.
With respect to housing shortages and high prices, Holley said, “The only lever the city can pull is increasing the supply,” and he put in a word for good planning. I’d prefer to say that the City can allow the supply to increase; the City doesn’t build the housing.
John pointed out that, demographically, we’re changing. He said two of his three children don’t want single-family homes and yards. He also said the City has “a great master plan” and has done a good job resisting departures from it.
Sumsion said we should “let the market decide,” not issue edicts from above. I myself have some sympathies in that direction, yet the federal and state edicts exist — to say nothing of zoning laws and our Development Code. If “let the market decide” means developers get to do whatever they want, I’ll pass.
This was one of those questions where everyone wanted more time . . .
Shorter expressed sadness that so many young people have lost “the American dream,” that they don’t want to have their own place. We need to get back to that dream, he said. That’s a common and reasonable interpretation of the American Dream.
(I think we need to look deeper. The American Dream is freedom, including economic freedom. But I digress.)
Holley said it’s important to see the big picture. He quoted Mayor Frost saying to a developer, as I mentioned above, “We’re building a city.”
John spoke of affordable housing, which has its place in American Fork, but “we just need to keep it American Fork.” What that could mean and how to achieve it could be a fruitful topic for extended discussion, but for now it sounds good to me.
Investing in the Future
Asked, “What’s your vision for American Fork?” Holley spoke of downtown and growth.
John offered some smart talk about water and its infrastructure.
Sumsion said we don’t need fiber, and people will come to American Fork no matter what we do, even if we do nothing. We don’t need to change anything.
Shorter raised a new topic, one I like to hear from time to time: beautification, or neighborhood preservation as we often call it. He said we need to get the churches involved in cleaning up our neighborhoods, and use volunteers, not taxes. I don’t think it has to be churches; why not simply neighbors?
Taylor talked about managing resources, including water, and building our commercial base, which requires having a sound environment in which businesses can thrive. I heard fiber there, between the lines.
In their closing statements, predictably, the candidates echoed earlier themes.
John wants to continue the great work of the current council. He said the city will change, but we can keep it American Fork.
Sumsion’s closing statement had the most red meat.
He said we must trust the citizens “or we’re not America.” He said we’re not getting a choice in matters such as fiber and some of the bonding. He said that, whenever we spend a large amount of money, the citizens ought to have their input — by referendum, he’s explained at other times. I guess he wants us to elect him to make the small decisions?
Perhaps he’s conveniently failed to notice that, in the American scheme of government, people elect representatives? We don’t make a lot of decisions, even the big ones, through direct democracy.
He advocates for constitutional government (most of us do), but apparently wants more direct democracy than state and federal constitutions require or even allow. He said the City is an exception, because there’s no separation of powers. (I recall him mentioning that briefly at this event and at more length on another occasion.) He’s wrong; at the City the executive and legislative functions are clearly separate, and most judicial functions are handled by the county or the state. He may mean there aren’t enough checks and balances, because he notes that the mayor can’t veto a city council action.
He also said, “All levels of government are spending money like crazy.” That’s a considerable injustice to the present city council and even to the Utah Legislature, both of which bodies, unlike Congress, are required by law to produce a balanced budget.
He said we need to think about impact of decisions on people who don’t have a lot of money. This is one of those backhanded slaps, like vague charges of secrecy or accusations of taxing-and-spending whenever the whim strikes, which anger incumbents. These are quite common (in two senses of that word). They’re so common that, when we see a challenger who doesn’t have to slander incumbents with whom he disagrees, who can give them credit for caring and acting responsibly, we know we’ve found an exceptional, honorable candidate.
These thinly-veiled insults, added to others throughout the evening and the campaign, naturally incensed the incumbent. (He’s the primary target.) In his closing statement Councilman Taylor objected to insinuations that there wasn’t transparency in major acts by the council, that they were just “slipped through.” No secrets, no cloak and dagger. I think he was angrier than he showed.
Shorter gave us more of the same. He said he wants “a little more transparency.” He wants to “find out where our money is going” — as if to suggest that these things are hidden, which they are not. And he reprised “let the voters decide,” as if it weren’t the voters who decided who’s been on the city council these past few years. More cheap politics-as-usual. More lazy sound bites.
Holley noted that so many things in our city come from decisions made decades ago — a logical companion to the thought that we should look well into the future when we consider issues and decisions.
My Final Thoughts
Every candidate said things I agree with and believe. Every candidate gave us some chaff along with the wheat. Every candidate said something with which I disagree.
That said, I didn’t hear anything to change my mind. The candidates were, to a man, who they’ve been from the beginning. There were no big surprises.
I was mildly surprised not to hear from any candidate that we should run the City like we run a family. That one’s pretty easy to dismantle with a few moments’ thought. Maybe it hasn’t played well in this campaign. If it’s gone, at least for a while, I won’t miss it.
Some residents who attended said they were undecided when they arrived; hence their attendance. (It’s a great reason to attend, maybe the best.) Some of those said afterwards that, during the evening, the candidates split themselves clearly into two groups: the three who sounded prudent and well informed — Taylor, John, and Holley — and the other two.
So it’s not just me. And in case you’re wondering, I like or dislike candidates (as candidates, not as people) because I like or dislike their positions, preparation, temperament, and philosophies. I don’t like or dislike those things based on whether I like or dislike the candidates as people.
Next up is a more detailed discussion of taxes.
Thanks for reading. And vote how you think best — but please learn BEFORE you vote.
Photo credit: generated by DALL·E2 with prompt”“line and watercolor drawing of a middle aged man with glasses, a receding hairline, and a blue shirt, sitting in an easy chair, thinking”