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West Jordan rejects 'strong mayor' question on November ballot

Published August 2, 2014 1:34 pm

One councilman points to his employer — Salt Lake City — as an example of problems with strong-mayor system.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

West Jordan city leaders have rejected a plan to let residents vote on changing to a strong mayor form of government in November, with one councilman pointing to Salt Lake City as an example of the special-interest corruption and dysfunction that he said would come from dumping the current system in which the day-to-day city operations are run by an appointed manager.

The change-of-government resolution — which would have asked voters whether to put an elected mayor in charge of running the city — was defeated 4-2.

Mayor Kim Rolfe, who was elected last year, said he has no public position on the switch because it would appear self-serving, but supports putting the question to voters.

"I absolutely believe that's something citizens should decide with their vote. I don't believe that the council should not allow them to have their voice in this issue," Rolfe said Friday.

He joined Councilman Jeff Haaga, who sponsored the resolution, in voting for it. But the other four voting council members rejected it.

Wednesday night's council meeting was the last chance to put the question before voters in November.

"It's dead this year," Rolfe said, but quickly added that he believes it will re-emerge to go on next year's ballot.

"I believe there's a large segment of the population that will bring it forward with an initiative. They need 3,000 signatures," Rolfe said. "I believe that will happen immediately. That's what I hear. I think it's already underway."

The strongest arguments against changing the form of government came from Councilmen Chad Nichols and Justin Stoker.

Stoker passionately opposed the switch, warning that putting too much power in the hands of a single individual — namely the mayor — is an invitation to bureaucracy and corruption. He cited Salt Lake City, where he works as a civil engineer, as Exhibit A.

"Every day I see the conflict, the dissolution, the bloatedness of the government under a strong mayor form of government," Stoker said. "It inevitably asks for corruption or special interests to take over that one seat. It only takes a well-funded special interest group to fund one election to take over 50 percent of your government.

"I don't mean to single out Salt Lake City but the current mayor of Salt Lake City spends more of his attention on environmental issues and bicycles than he does on the needs of his residents because it was environmentalists that got him elected and he's got a half million dollars in his campaign account from environmentalists."

At one point the mayor cautioned Stoker about making comments he might not want on the record and he concluded his comments shortly after that.

Stoker and Nichols also said the proposal hasn't had nearly enough discussion, warned of increased costs and unintended consequences, and said they haven't heard residents clamoring for a change in the form of the government.

"I've only had one constituent [during my] 4½ years on the council, [who] approached me and said we need the strong mayor form of government," Nichols said.

And Stoker says the issue is too complicated for an electorate that doesn't want to get down into the weeds of government.

"I would venture to bet that if we were to put it to the residents, only 5 percent of the total population of our city would truly understand what was put before them. The lack of education there is just profound," Stoker said. "None of this has been discussed with anybody, let alone the public. The public hasn't had a chance to weigh in on any of this."

Haaga pushed back strongly against those remarks.

"You say 5 percent. With all due respect, councilman, I believe our residents are smart. I believe they're educated, and they can make a decision. To say that we have some special gift — that's offensive to me."

He mentioned a petition initiative years ago to change the government that finally was scuttled when city officials tied the movement up with expensive court fights. "Trust me, there's hundreds, thousands of people that want a [strong] mayor," said Haaga.