Should cities switch to a 'strong mayor' government?
There were weeks when Dennis Nordfelt put in 60 hours as part-time mayor of West Valley City.His successor, Mike Winder, has averaged at least 30 hours a week while holding down a full-time job for much of his tenure as the top elected official.
Before he left office at the end of 2009, Nordfelt, who earned an annual salary of $23,909, urged the City Council to consider having a full-time mayor with full-time pay in Utah's second-largest city.
The mayoral pay was bumped to $35,000, but the position has remained part-time. Now Winder has announced that he will not seek a second term, citing the need for a full-time job so he can support his family.
For most mayors, the demands of the job easily can fill 40 hours a week and more. However, pay differs dramatically depending on whether the top elected official serves under the mayor-council or council-manager form of government.
The job and salary are full-time under the mayor-council system also called the strong mayor system while the council-manager form is considered part-time.For many public servants, the difference is just technical.
"Part-time mayors are full-time, and full-time mayors are time-and-a-half," said Murray Mayor Dan Snarr, who is finishing up his 16th year as Murray's full-time mayor and said he will not seek a fifth term. "That's the way it actually is."
Murray, a city of about 47,600 residents, adopted the strong mayorform of government in 1981. Under this system, the mayor serves as the city's chief executive and the council functions as the legislative branch.
Under the council-manager form of government which was removed from Utah code in 2008 but grandfathered in for cities that had already adopted it the mayor serves as chair of the council and is a voting member of that body.
Voters must approve any change in the form of government, but a council can adjust a mayor's salary.
The Salt Lake County cities functioning with the strong-mayor framework include Murray, Salt Lake City, Sandy, South Salt Lake and Taylorsville.
Cottonwood Heights, Holladay, West Jordan and West Valley City are the only municipalities in the Salt Lake Valley that were grandfathered in to keep the old council-manager option, according to David Church, legal counsel for the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
From the outside, though, all mayors look the same in terms of whom to call and where the buck stops.
"Your citizens don't know the difference between a [Sandy] Mayor [Tom] Dolan and a Mayor Cullimore," said Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore.
Dolan receives a salary of about $119,000, while Cullimore's pay is slightly more than $19,000.
In addition to Cullimore's civic duties, he also heads up the publicly traded Dynatronics Corp. He credits his wife, city staff and company employees for enabling him to do both.
"I have some flexibility in my CEO position, so that if I have to be gone during the day, I can work at night," Cullimore said. "So I'm putting in 14 hours a day."
In Taylorsville, Mayor Jerry Rechtenbach serves full-time as his city's top executive. He said the strong-mayor system gives the municipality a bigger voice at the state Legislature and in organizations such as the Council of Governments.
Although he can send someone in his place to a meeting, Rechtenbach said, that representative lacks executive authority and doesn't carry the mantle of a mayor.
"The legislators defer to mayors," he said, "but they don't necessarily defer to a lobbyist or an administrator."
Former Taylorsville Mayor Russ Wall said the council-manager form of government limited Winder on what he could have done when problems surfaced in the West Valley City Police Department, which is now being investigated for possible corruption.
Six months after he took office in 2006, Wall dismissed his city's police chief.
"I fired a chief that I perceived was a problem," he said, adding that "a lot of my police department problems went away" after that.
Church said all mayors, even those serving in a council-manager city, can still have a "huge duty."
"I like to say that all mayors are full-time," he said, "but it's just that some are paid well enough that they can quit their other job."
Winder had worked for public relations firm The Summit Group but resigned in November 2011, soon after he revealed that he had used a pseudonym to submit articles published in the Deseret News, KSL.com and the community newspaper Oquirrh Times. Since then, he has been doing freelance consulting as he looks for another job.
"There are very few employers who will say you can take off as much as you want," he said.
Winder isn't taking a stand on whether West Valley should change to the strong mayorform of government but believes a full-time mayor is needed because of the job's demands. Among them are numerous intergovernmental meetings where regional issues and joint projects are discussed, as well as the ceremonial ribbon-cuttings, which often take place during the day.
"There's no end to the good a mayor can do for the city working full time," he said.
City Manager Wayne Pyle sees advantages to the council-manager system for West Valley. Elected officials set policies and trained professionals implement them in as apolitical a way as possible, which provides continuity and objectivity in the city's operations, he said, adding that he respects cities that operate under other systems. The progress that the city has made, from bringing new businesses to the community to lowering its crime rate to improving neighborhoods, is proof of the system's success, Pyle said.
West Valley City Councilman Corey Rushton said everyone in public service has to find the right balance of working hours. He added that the title of mayor "is kind of a misnomer."
"Our mayor should be called council chair or council president," Rushton said, "because it's more descriptive of the job."
Resident Kevin Fayles, who ran against Winder for mayor in 2009, argues West Valley should keep its current form of government.
"If you look at our current and previous mayors all nice guys I don't think they had the skills to take the place of a city manager, someone with the professional background and education to run a city," Fayles said.
Another resident, community volunteer Pat Deelstra, agrees.
"I think a part-time mayor is fine," she said, "as long as you have a good city manager."
In West Jordan, Melissa Johnson also has chosen not to pursue a second term as mayor of Utah's fourth-largest city. Demands of the position forced her to quit her private-sector job, and now Johnson believes it's time that she heads in a new direction.However, she recently persuaded the City Council to raise the future mayor's pay from $18,366 to $89,500.
Most mayors also receive benefits, expanding total compensation by about 30 percent.
"We want to make sure that everyone who runs for office knows what's involved," Johnson said, adding that the beefed-up salary will attract candidates
who are professionals , not just those who are independently wealthy or retired.
Murray's Snarr offered some sobering advice for prospective candidates, regardless of their city's form of government:"It's not as pleasant an experience as you think it will be," Snarr said. "If you want to make progress, you're going to have to ask people to sacrifice and they don't like to do that."
Both big and large municipalities operate under a system where the council makes policy and an appointed administrator implements it. The nine largest cities with this council-manager form of government and their populations are:
Charlotte, N.C. • 540,000
Dallas • 1,188,000
Las Vegas • 535,000
Oklahoma City • 506,000
Phoenix • 1,321,000
San Antonio • 1,144,000
San Jose, Calif. • 894,000
Virginia Beach • 425,000
Wichita • 344,000
Source: 2012 ICMA Municipal Yearbook