One of our American Fork city council candidates likes to say we should run the City — specifically its finances — like a family budget. He even registered a web domain about it:

I’m jaded and cynical, when it comes to political talking points, including “Manage City as a Family Budget.” I like to crack them open and see if there’s any substance beneath the shiny sound bite.

. . . Which makes this one of those opinion-and-analysis posts, sez I to warn readers who come here only for information. (Thanks for stopping by again. Let’s all learn BEFORE we vote.)

My Family

I know next to nothing about this candidate’s family, though I readily accept that he has one. I’ve seen a photo. Odds are I know next to nothing about your family too. Families vary widely, so the best I can do here is compare how we’ve done things in my family over the years with how things do or could work in American Fork City government.

I have a quick tangent, then we’ll dive in. Like any proper tangent, it really does intersect with my topic.

Quick Tangent: Low-Grade Stuff

As far as I’ve heard and seen, none of this year’s candidates has uttered the specific example I’m about to give, but I’ve heard it around town before.

Imagine a city council candidate standing on your front step — or, if that’s too invasive, at a public debate. He or she says this (as some have said before): “I’m running for city council because I feel very strongly that we need to balance the City budget every year. We owe it to the taxpayers.”

I say a hearty amen to a balanced budget. So be it! But I won’t be voting for this candidate. One of two things is happening here, and they’re both bad.

Either the candidate doesn’t know that the City already balances its budget every year, as state law requires — a basic fact I expect every candidate to know. Or the candidate knows this, thinks enough of us don’t, wants us to think ill of incumbents and opponents without cause, and ultimately hopes to prey on our ignorance to get our votes.

It’s low-grade political sleaze. I think they must sell a large variety pack at the local Costco for Candidates. Perhaps we haven’t seen this precise flavor in the current election, but there’s no shortage of other popular flavors. Hold that thought.

Back to It

Be frugal!

The do-it-like-a-family candidate says the City should be frugal, that we should “live within our means.” I absolutely agree. Where he and I differ is that I look at City operations over the past several years or more and see exemplary frugality. He sees people taxing-borrowing-spending on the slightest whim. (Or if he doesn’t, he should stop suggesting that he does. Remember my tangent?)

He says “every dollar” should be “spent with care and transparency,” that we need “transparent & open government” (quoting his flier). Clearly he thinks we need him on the council for that. (Remember my tangent? He wants us to believe the current council lacks care and transparency.)

No comparison is perfect, of course. He says his family’s frugality has allowed them to take “some nice family vacations.” My family takes vacations too; I can’t begin to guess whether he’d think ours are nice. Of course, we don’t want the City taking us on vacations, nice or otherwise, with borrowed funds or tax revenues — and it doesn’t.

Don’t borrow!

My family borrows, somewhat reluctantly, when we have to. For the big stuff. A home, a car (a van once), a college education. I can’t tell you whether this candidate and his family have ever done the same. Maybe they’ve always had enough money to pay cash for everything, but how common is that in American Fork? To my knowledge he hasn’t mentioned living in a tent city under an overpass somewhere until they could pay cash for their first home. I don’t want anybody to do that, even a politician.

In the real world, judicious borrowing is an effective way to save money in the long run. We’d have received far more value in road reconstruction for our money by now if we’d borrowed that $20 million to jump-start neglected repairs back in 2013. Labor and materials cost a lot less back then. But our do-it-like-a-family candidate and his allies deployed a flood of misinformation (to use a gentle term) and persuaded voters to oppose that bond issue. (See my old, uncharacteristically short blog posts in response, here and here and here and here.) Come to think of it, that’s another feature of my family: we expect people to tell the truth. Families are different, I suppose.

Wise families don’t borrow every single dollar the bank will approve. To continue the shaky metaphor, American Fork’s municipal debt load is and long has been far below the maximum state law would permit — and it would still have been so, had that 2013 road bond passed, for example. To me this strongly suggests care, wisdom, and frugality. Then again, I’m not running for political office.

If you must borrow (or spend any large amount), put it to a vote!

This candidate doesn’t care what the law says about this — as he actually said in public the other day. Anytime City officials want to spend a lot of money, he says, they should put it to the voters first.

It’s odd for someone running to be our local elected representative to undermine representative government so openly, but here’s his favorite case in point: the municipal fiber broadband project he and his allies at that big-telecom-influenced, anti-competitive think tank don’t like. (See my “Straight Talk About Fiber.“)

Here’s another: the $20 million “RDA” — he’s wrong; it’s a CRA, but that’s similar — for the long-awaited 200 South reconstruction south of the freeway. He speaks as if this is another instance of the city council spending piles of money on a whim — which is thinly-veiled disrespect for a lot of people. (Remember my tangent?) This is part of a large, complex project. The planning commission, the city council, and city staff have worked hard on this one for more than a decade — not crowing incessantly about it, but not in the shadows either.

In any case, in my family, when we wanted to get a mortgage or a car loan, we never put it to a vote of the children. Nor have we done that with other large expenditures which didn’t involve debt. Maybe they do that at his house.

Is it wrong to wonder what that might have looked like at my house? Let’s do that.

Remember those dream sequences on Gilligan’s Island?

Imagine that I worked late one night and my wife didn’t — in reality the reverse is at least as likely — and she greeted me when I arrived home, after all the kids were in bed.

(I don’t know how to do dreamy, blurry fog with text.)

Imagine that she comes to me and says, “I have a question for you. If a city should be governed like a family, it follows that a family should be governed like a city, right?”

I nod. “I think so.”

In our imaginations, yours and mine, I reason to myself that the better we do in both realms, the more they will come to resemble each other, until they are finally identical. And here’s a bit of reality which also fits our dream: I like to look down the road — far down the road — to the ultimate consequences of ideas. Foresight isn’t 20/20, I readily admit.

“In that spirit,” she says, “when all the kids were home after school, I put our roof replacement to a vote. I knew you’d be home after their bedtimes, and it is urgent. And because it’s a big expenditure, it should be voted on.”

I resist the urge to squirm. “You put it to a vote?”

It’s late, and she sounds tired. “I believe in good government. We both do. Would you like to know the result? It’s tentative, technically, because you and I haven’t voted yet. I waited for you for that.”

“How did they vote?”

(She names each child, but I’ll number them instead.)

“Child #1 thinks we should just repair it with tar or plastic from Home Depot and buy him a car instead. He voted no.

“Child #2 wants an extended, nice vacation at Disneyland, preferably without her brothers, and we can just live with the leaky roof. She voted no.

“Child #3 voted no, because the work will be noisy.

“Child #4 sat in his high chair and gave us all a big, long raspberry when I asked if he voted yes on the roof work. Just to be sure, I asked him if he voted no, and we got another raspberry. I’m calling that an abstention, but even if we demand a revote and sway him to our side, you and I don’t have enough votes between us to pass this one.”

“So what will we do?” I ask. “We’ve endured four and a half months of the roofer’s five-month backlog already. And those shingles, what’s left of them, are ten years past their rated life.”

“It’s already done,” she said. “I called the roofer and canceled. I said the family voted against it. You can go to the hardware store on Saturday. We need a few more buckets too. And get a taller ladder. Remind me: how much life insurance do we have on you?”

I leave that question unanswered, and she bids me good night and goes upstairs.

(If I knew how to do dreamy fog in text, I’d turn it off here.)

Of course not!

Many good families’ internal governments could be called benevolent despotism. I gather the run-it-like-a-family candidate doesn’t think our City government should be a benevolent despotism. After all, he keeps saying we children should vote on more things than the law requires.

I’m sure he doesn’t mean that the City should pay for everyone’s housing, food, medical care, and so on — but that’s how my family’s budget works.

Come to think of it, in my family we don’t tax the children. This candidate has boasted that he was “ranked #1 conservative” in the state legislature in 2012. (In Utah that’s hardly a qualification for city council, I say — and I’m a conservative.) But I’m guessing the full abolition of taxes isn’t quite what he has in mind for the City. He does want to roll back that 2022 tax increase which funded roads and public safety salaries. (See my “Straight Talk About Taxes.“)

Wise, Frugal, Transparent

Does the do-it-like-a-family candidate sincerely believe we should run our City finances like a family budget, even though that particular sound bite is as hollow as a cheap chocolate truffle? Has he believed this from the beginning, or did he cynically adopt this talking point to sway voters who vote by emotion and don’t bother to think for a minute when they hear something? Did this conviction start out cynical and then become sincere in the repetition of it? (Candidates are as good at that as the rest of us.)

I can’t say with confidence which is the case. I’m willing to believe that he sincerely wants local government to be wise, frugal, and transparent, and that he adopted a campaign sound bite that’s a lot flimsier than he realized (rather like some luggage I bought once).

I Want That Too — As the Camera Zooms Out

I too want wise, frugal, transparent local government. But I think we already have it, without any do-it-like-a-family fiscal saviors on the city council. I haven’t always thought this, and I’m about as far from thinking this about the federal government as I could possibly be, but I think it now about American Fork — and I think it gratefully. Then again, I’m not running for office. (I do think we should remain vigilant.)

As co-believers in wise, frugal, and transparent government, we can disagree about where to draw the line on certain projects. I could vote for candidates with whom I differ that way, and I often do. I can even bear a few flimsy sound bites that don’t pass the scratch test.

But sleazy insinuations — and, usually more privately, outright accusations — against good, wise, honest men and women — of waste, abuse, recklessness, and deception? (Remember my tangent?) Bad ideas from the past tarted up as righteous principles for the future? Key numbers and other facts distorted or ignored to serve an ideological narrative? I want better in my candidates, especially the successful ones who take office.

With advocacy of wisdom, frugality, and transparency, I want actual wisdom, frugality, and transparency. And as much as I want anything in our politics, I want honest, open disagreement, based on undistorted facts presented responsibly in context.

I don’t ask for much, do I?

I won’t promise not to write more about this election before the votes are in, but this is the last post I planned, when I planned these things three months ago. As I wrote then:

  • Self-righteousness is not righteousness. . . .
  • Impressive résumés sometimes obscure dubious past performance, poor prospects for the future, and bad ideas generally.
  • Truth and honesty are not negotiable. If you are an honest person in other facets of life but not in politics, you are not an honest person.
  • If you deploy facts to deceive or distort, you may fit comfortably into the political world at large, but you shouldn’t expect to fit comfortably into local government in American Fork. We’re accustomed to better.

I’ll be voting for better when I put my ballot in the dropbox this weekend. I’m grateful to have better to vote for. In doing so, I’ll be in some of the best local company, and I’m grateful for that too.

As ever, thanks for reading my thoughts. They don’t have to be your thoughts. Vote as you think best.

In Utah Election Day 2023 is Tuesday, November 21.

Image credit: generated by DALL-E with prompt “line and watercolor drawing of a large family, standing in front of trees and a blue sky”