West Jordan will adopt new strong mayor form of government after voters OK change by narrow 63-vote margin

Third time’s the charm? The city’s newly-approved form of government will put mayor in charge starting in 2020.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe sits at the podium under the city logo. Rolfe was a supporter of changing to a strong mayor form of government and that initiative was approved by voters. But Rolfe was defeated in his bid for re-election.

After 30 years of back-and-forth and three votes considering changes to the structure of West Jordan’s government, residents have decided to switch from a council-manager to a strong mayor.

The vote was tight right up until the final canvass on Tuesday and was ultimately approved by just a 63-vote margin. Some 6,841 residents voted for the change, while 6,778 voted against it.

“With the numbers being as close as they were, we were just not even certain until the final numbers came in with the canvass,” said Kim Wells, a spokeswoman for the city. “Now, we’ve got some direction and a path forward and we’ve got the two years to make that switch as seamless as possible. And in terms of what that’s going to cost and what that’s going to look like exactly, that is yet to be seen.”

The narrow margin fell just outside the window for a recount, according to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.

Under the city’s current form of government, which is no longer supported by state law, the executive leadership role is in the hands of the city manager. But under the new form, which will take effect in January 2020, that control will now rest with the city’s mayor.

The mayor will have the power to hire or remove department heads and will have veto authority on council initiatives.

Mayor Kim Rolfe, defeated 64-36 percent by challenger Jim Riding, said he is looking forward to seeing the new form of government enacted.

“I know from firsthand experience that residents already think the mayor is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the city,” Rolfe said. “They are always surprised that in our current form of government, it is the city manager who is the chief executive officer.”

Currently, the mayor sits as one of seven council members and has no particular say in hiring and firing and no special executive authority except to sign contracts and preside at council meetings.

Though proponents of the change said it would limit public confusion and give more power to voters, some residents raised concerns at city council meetings about the timing and fiscal impacts of the new form of government.

Mayor-elect Riding, a longtime city employee who will take office in January, will have his term cut short in 2020, as will some council members — all of whom will still be entitled to compensation for the final two years of their terms. For that reason, some council members had argued that the timing would be more efficient to take effect in 2022, when a new mayoral term would naturally start.

Riding, who was opposed to the change, also said he thinks the city’s current form of government ensures the most qualified person is running the city.

“The city manager form of government that we have now, that person is hired with a background, education, knowledge and experience of having run a city before,” he said, “whereas under the change of government now that’s going to happen in two years, that mayor only has to live in the city, be 18 years old and be popular.”

Still, Riding said he will run again in 2020. If he’s not elected, he plans to retire and said he “will not be taking that money” he’d be owed for the last two years of his term.

“I’m disappointed that it passed by 63 votes, but I will do my best to make everything work as well as I possibly can in the next two years and, if I can get elected, in the next four after that,” he said.