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Utah cities turning to lobbyists as their lifeline to the Legislature

First Published      Last Updated Aug 28 2015 01:34 am

Has Utah reached a point where a city needs a high-powered lobbyist to survive and prosper?

Yes, say West Jordan leaders.

The state's fourth-largest city has decided to substantially expand its lobbying prowess — more than doubling its spending on contract lobbyists — to the tune of $230,000 for the coming 12 months.

City leaders pointed to other Utah municipalities — particularly Sandy — in saying a potent lobbying presence in the state Capitol, in Washington and in corporate boardrooms is no longer an extravagance, it's a necessity.

"I must state that a couple of neighbors to our east have five different firms that represent them and spend over $500,000," West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe said in pushing for the contract expansion. "If you look specifically at the transportation funding and some of the other funding that comes from the state, even though they're much smaller than us, they get a lot larger share of those because of the lobbyists that work for them.

"I believe," Rolfe said, "they're worth their weight in gold."

Acting City Manager Bryce Haderlie, who has had a troubled relationship with Rolfe for several months, wholeheartedly agreed with him on this topic.

He told the council how the two lobby firms — first hired by West Jordan last fall for a total of $110,000 — "opened doors of communication with legislators, state agencies and a host of other people that I just don't know how we would ever have access to."

And Haderlie recounted how the firm of Foxley & Pignanelli, whose contract is tripling from its current $60,000, jumped in to stave off a proposal to include a West Jordan site in the prison relocation finalist list.

"There was one night on the prison relocation I literally called these gentlemen and within 20 minutes I had a confirmation to sit down with one of the prison relocation chairmen. That kind of access and coordination is unbelievable. So to put an exact price on that, I don't know how you could do that."

Playing the game • Ben Southworth was one of just two members of the City Council to vote against last week's proposal to double up on its lobbying.

His opposition stemmed primarily from the fact the city hasn't yet spelled out its top objectives in the new contracts. He also acknowledges having some heartburn over the expense.

"It gives me pause when I look at that amount of money. It makes me think, 'Is this really the highest and best use of taxpayer dollars?'"

But, like others, he points to Sandy's success in bringing home the bacon.

"I have a hard time playing that game sometimes," Southworth said. "It's how the system works, so we can say it's not fair, we don't like it. But if you don't play it, then you lose.

"I'd prefer it wasn't that way."

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan was the first Utah mayor to decide that a big lobbying team was the key to success. He said he figured out, about three years after he was first elected in 1994, that running herd on the 104-member Legislature was too big a job for any mayor, and hired his first lobbyist.

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Lobbyists for Utah’s biggest cities

Sandy 13.

West Jordan 7

West Valley City 6

Salt Lake City 4

Ogden 4

Taylorsville 4

South Jordan 4

Orem 2

Layton 2

Provo 0

St. George 0

Source: Utah lieutenant governor’s office