Economic development marked West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder's tenure
West Valley City • Earlier this month, as part of a Writer in Residence program, Mayor Mike Winder spent a morning holding lessons for sixth-graders at Endeavor Hall Charter School based on a book he wrote about presidential visits to Utah.
The following Monday, he wielded a large pair of scissors at a ribbon-cutting for a Freebirds World Burrito. The next day, Winder created posters for a ceremony marking Hank Price Day in honor of West Valley City's first mayor.
This type of dedication to the city and its residents is typical for Winder, who has attended hundreds of grand openings and civic functions during his tenure as mayor of Utah's second-largest city, population 133,000. His view of the part-time job is reflected in the title of a children's book he wrote, "It's Fun to Be the Mayor."
"Even when there are challenges, there's a sense of satisfaction," Winder said.
But after four years at the helm a time that included the successful launch of a major downtown development project, a scandal over the writing of positive news articles under a fake name and a police department controversy Winder opted against seeking a second term and is looking for a full-time job to support his family. His stint as mayor will officially end on Jan. 6, when successor Ron Bigelow is sworn in.
City administrators and elected officials describe Winder as West Valley's biggest booster who works tirelessly to help his city. Business owners also are happy with his efforts.
"This means so much to me that he would come," Freebirds franchisee Chris Beck-McKay said at the grand opening of the restaurant. "He's helping me kick off my business."
Business and jobs • Nicole Cottle, community and economic development director, said Winder is a "huge supporter" of the effort to bring businesses to the city. And City Manager Wayne Pyle also said the mayor is a champion of economic development.
"The mayor was a cheerleader," Pyle said. "He was very enthusiastic filling that role."
City Council members also singled out Winder's exuberance. Councilman Tom Huynh said the mayor had a vision for West Valley, which included creating the Fairbourne Station downtown development.
Councilman Corey Rushton said he's had differences with Winder on some of the issues but that the mayor was willing to compromise and to work hard.
"He knows when it's time to stop talking about a project and roll up your sleeves and do it," Rushton said. "That was really his strength."
On the flip side, Winder at times wanted to dive into a project too quickly and the rest of the council had to caution him to slow down, according to Rushton.
That view was echoed by Councilman Don Christensen, who said that when Winder came up with a project, "he wanted to get it done and he didn't see why it couldn't be done right now."
"You need to sit back sometimes and look long range at how something will go. Sometimes, you have to learn to paddle before you jump in," Christensen said, adding that Winder has done a good job as mayor.
Winder said he worked "extra hard" during his tenure because he wasn't sure if he would run for a second term.
"I worry that when all is said and done, more is said than done," he said.
Winder, 37, who grew up in Granger and Taylorsville, earned a bachelor's degree in history and a master's in business from the University of Utah. He was West Valley City's business development director from 2000 to 2004, then served one term as city councilman.
He ran for mayor in a 2009 nonpartisan race and won with 76 percent of the vote.
Winder, who campaigned for mayor on an economic development platform, considers business growth and job creation to be a prime success of West Valley City Council members.
"As a team, we've been able to transform the city in the past four years," he said.
Successes • That transformation includes turning around Valley Fair Mall, launching the half-billion dollar Fairbourne Station, convincing numerous businesses to move to the city or expand there and creating approximately 6,000 jobs.
Winder lists as other accomplishments the arrival of a TRAX extension, an 11 percent drop in crime, an ongoing effort to make the animal shelter a no-kill facility and an ordinance to prevent discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In addition, Winder and Councilman Steve Buhler launched an initiative in early 2011 that encourages residents of the diverse city, which has a 45 percent ethnic minority population, to learn English as a way to improve their lives and unify the community. The council has recognized about 1,000 immigrants for their efforts to master a new language.
One of Winder's biggest challenge has been to polish his community's image. To some outsiders, the name West Valley City evokes junky yards and crime a view that elected officials and residents reject as unfair.
"West Valley City is safer than it's been in decades," Winder said.
Scandal • His desire to promote a positive image led to a scandal. In November 2011, Winder, then director of public affairs for the public relations firm The Summit Group, revealed that he had used the name Richard Burwash to submit articles published in the Deseret News, KSL.com and the community newspaper Oquirrh Times. The stories focused on West Valley City's successes.
Winder said he was frustrated that the Deseret News had drastically reduced its city government coverage after layoffs the previous year, but not its crime coverage, and he wanted to "try to restore balance." Many saw the incident as a reflection on his integrity and judgment but some applauded the mayor for sticking up for his city.
Winder who apologized for his actions, which he recently described as a "boneheaded move by a well-meaning mayor" resigned from The Summit Group and has been doing freelance consulting. He ran for Salt Lake County mayor last year and lost in the Republican primary. He acknowledges the Burwash controversy likely had an effect.
"That mistake absolutely has been a black eye for me," Winder said. "It'll be a ghost that haunts me forever but less and less as time goes on."
A more recent controversy involved allegations of evidence mishandling by the West Valley City Police Department and the November 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed Danielle Willard by detectives. In the past year, the Salt Lake County attorney has determined that deadly force was not justified and is screening possible criminal charges against the officers and a new police chief has been hired to replace Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who retired in March.
"Despite a few bad apples, most of the men and women of the police department are phenomenal," Winder said.
Looking ahead • Winder's sister, Aimee Newton, said two experiences the death of their mother in a 2011 car accident and the Burwash controversy changed her brother. He learned "to err on the side of transparency," she said, and "that life is short, that what we do matters and that people are most important."
Newton, a candidate for Salt Lake County Council, singles out the revitalization of the Valley Fair Mall area as her brother's greatest accomplishment.
Mike Markham, a 40-year resident of West Valley City, called the pseudonym use "a silly mistake."
But he said, "I believe his heart was in the right place trying to defend the city. I think overall Mike did a good job. He had a pretty good vision."
As his tenure winds down, Winder is looking forward to the free time he'll have to spend with his wife, Karyn, and their four children, ages 6 to 14. He has not ruled out running for public office again but for the immediate future, he's looking for a full-time job.
Marketing, government relations and economic development are among the fields where Winder could land. He also has an interest in heritage and the arts, as well as writing he is a historian who has served on the Utah Board of State History and the Museum Services Advisory Board and the author of 10 published books and two more that are coming out in 2014.
"We're never defined by one career," Winder said. "Politics is just one part of Mike Winder."
Whatever he does, Winder will remain devoted to West Valley City. He said ancestor John R. Winder, who served on the Salt Lake City Council in the 1870s, was an inspiration.
"He set the example for Winders to be involved in the community," the mayor said.
He added: "I think it's important to be a champion of your town."
West Valley City's newly elected officials Mayor Ron Bigelow and City Council members Steve Buhler, Lars Nordfelt and Steve Vincent will take the oath of office at a public ceremony beginning at noon Jan. 6 at City Hall, 3600 S. Constitution Blvd. (2700 West).