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They sit among city council members — presenting budgets, negotiating agreements with their counterparts and, on special days, cut ribbons.
Only a handful of mayors in Utah cities hold full-time responsibilities — and what they get paid, in salary and benefits, varies widely.
In West Valley City, Utah’s second-most populous city, part-time Mayor Karen Lang makes more than $46,000 in wages, plus $21,000 in benefits. Lang sits as a member of the City Council and has the same voting powers as other council members — though, as mayor, she also performs ceremonial duties.
South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey is also a part-timer. But her job, like that of many part-time mayors, represents more of a full-time commitment. After one term in office, she received a substantial wage increase, taking her pay to $125,000 plus $42,813 in benefits and putting her on par with some so-called strong mayors in the Salt Lake Valley.
Ramsey isn’t the highest-paid mayor among Utah’s major cities, according to figures from city offices and the state auditor’s website, Transparent Utah. That honor goes to Ogden’s Mike Caldwell, who earned $211,378 in wages and benefits in 2022. He’s followed by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who made $197,110 last year, and Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, who received $194,429 in 2022.
No mayor in Utah’s largest cities, however, makes more than the best-paid city managers. Topping the list is West Valley City’s longtime city manager, Wayne Pyle, who made $367,011 in wages and benefits in 2022. (Orem’s city manager, James Davidson, made $387,143 in wages and benefits last year, but that included a severance package, as Davidson resigned at the end of the year. Orem’s acting city manager, Brenn Bybee, makes $259,085 in wages and benefits.
It’s a difference that often can be explained by the forms of government in each city.
About a dozen Utah cities — including Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sandy — have a strong-mayor system. Under that setup, the mayor heads the executive branch, and the city council works as a legislative body. It’s similar to how the state runs, with the governor’s office and the Legislature as coequal branches.
Most Utah cities, on the other hand, operate under a “council-manager” system, in which the mayor is one member of the city council, and many duties of the executive are handled by a hired city manager.
There’s disagreement among officials in Utah cities about which system is better. Hiring a city manager means having “somebody who’s professionally trained in all the different aspects that a city is run on,” said Wayne Pyle, who has been West Valley City’s city manager for the past 21 years.
West Jordan Mayor Dirk Burton, the first in that job since the city switched to the strong-mayor system, said the advantage is “you have that direct contact there, which means the residents are being heard. The city managers, they don’t answer to the residents. They answer to the council as a whole.”
South Jordan’s arrangement
South Jordan and most cities with this system have six-member councils, with the mayor running meetings. In South Jordan, Ramsey and the council delegate some authority to a hired city manager, who fulfills the duties of an executive branch with the council’s advice.
As mayor, Ramsey chairs the City Council, but she doesn’t have a vote, unless she has to break a tie — which hasn’t happened since Ramsey took the job.
“I’ve never had the chance to vote,” she said. “However, [being] chair of the council gives me the opportunity to be a strong influence on what happens.”
Though Ramsey’s job is part-time on paper, she said she rarely spends less than 50 hours a week working as mayor.
“It’s a very busy, demanding responsibility, which is really challenging when you have another full-time career,” she said. “But a lot of [mayors] do; most of them [do].”
She said she promised to keep that time commitment when she ran for office, but, she added, she doesn’t expect her successor to follow that schedule.
For her part, Ramsey doesn’t advocate changing South Jordan’s form of government.
“We have that constant of that professional city manager, to help keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly,” she said. “You never know who you’re going to get as your elected officials in any form of government.”
In 2022, the City Council raised Ramsey’s salary to levels comparable to those of some full-time mayors in the Salt Lake Valley to reflect her hours and hard work. The base pay remains the same; the council added a merit-pay bonus.
At first Ramsey rejected the idea. “I knew what the salary was, and I offered to work full time anyway, and I did for the whole first term,” she said. “It took me years to agree to it actually.”
The pay hike, Ramsey said, is “under the caveat that if I choose to step back, and not put in all of these hours, I could go back to just being part-time. … And if I choose to, I can, but then they take away that additional merit pay.”
From time to time, a city with a council-manager government considers switching to a strong-mayor system. There are no current initiatives from councils or residents in any Salt Lake County city seeking to make such a switch.
“Changing forms of government has been rare,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. “It’s hard to draw a conclusion about what [has] precipitated a change in the form of government.”
The most successful cities, Diehl said, are ones where the mayor, the council and the staff work together in harmony, dividing specific responsibilities toward the community’s shared goals. That’s true, he said, no matter what form of government the city uses.
West Valley City has a six-member council with a voting mayor — compared to South Jordan’s five-member council with a mayor who only votes to break ties — and a city manager leading the executive branch. It’s a rare system, because state law prohibits cities from switching to it, and only cities that had the system before the law was changed in 2008 can implement it. (Among the handful of cities, besides West Valley City, that use the system are Cottonwood Heights, Holladay, Orem and Brian Head.)
Last spring, the West Valley City Council discussed the idea of putting a change-of-government initiative on November’s ballot. Wayne Pyle, West Valley’s city manager, presented the pros and cons of the current system and the strong-mayor model.
“This question comes up every few years here in West Valley, and there’s nothing wrong with that from a political-interest standpoint out there in the citizenry,” said Pyle, who plans to retire next year. “If it did become a question, I would be doing everything I could do to encourage the residents to recognize and realize what huge progress we’ve made in the short existence of West Valley’s incorporation [in 1980].”
The case for a city manager
“I’m biased,” Pyle said, toward the council-manager system, which he noted is common across the country. He acknowledged that with a strong mayor, the constituents are more familiar with who runs the city — but, to him, hiring a city manager is better.
A professionally trained manager, Pyle said, understands such issues as “economic development, public safety, legal liability or legal advice, finance, personnel, parks, recreation.” Pyle himself got his training in public administration.
Since mayors’ terms expire every four years, Pyle said, it’s tough for that officeholder to gain the experience of a hired manager. A manager also provides stability to city staffers, since they’re working for the same boss over time.
Also, Pyle said, strong mayors usually have to hire their own chief administrative officer as well, so a city manager can be a cheaper option.
Pyle’s wages and benefits for 2023 totaled $367,011, according to Transparent Utah — just behind Orem’s city manager among unelected administrators in Utah’s major cities. That’s still less than the combined salaries of, for example, Ogden’s mayor and chief administrative officer, which in 2023 total $489,294.
The West Valley City Council ultimately decided against pursuing the change for now, and the deadline to get the issue on the fall ballot passed.
Some in West Valley City — such as Tom Huynh, council member and mayor pro tem — are still considering the question.
“The current form of government that we have [has] basically too many layers,” Huynh said. “With the strong-mayor form of government, basically you work with the mayor and the council, and these people, they are local people. They know where the pothole is. They know where the park has a problem.”
Huynh said budget changes and other issues can get stuck in a city manager’s office, making it harder to cut costs or execute ordinances, because of budget or staff constraints.
And, with an unelected city manager, Huynh said, constituents may not know who’s making the decisions.
A different kind of stability
West Jordan, Utah’s third most-populous city, hasn’t elected a mayor to a second term since 1977. The city manager’s job has also seen repeated turnover — from 2010 to 2020, six different officials held the post, according to The West Jordan Journal.
The city saw another change in 2020: After a grassroots initiative narrowly passed in 2017, West Jordan switched from a council-manager system to a strong-mayor government.
The first West Jordan mayor elected under the new system, Dirk Burton, is now running for reelection — and some wonder if the strong-mayor system will give the city more stability.
Before his election in 2019, Burton said he was one of those who pushed for a strong mayor.
One argument against that system — that the change could cost the city more — “ended up not being accurate information,” Burton said. The staffing needs of West Jordan’s government aren’t the same as big cities, like Salt Lake City, he said. “The amount of employees that we have in the city right now is actually less than when I first became mayor.”
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burton cut positions in all city departments. Some have been restored, but not all of them.
The new system is working well, Burton said. The city created the post of chief administrative officer, to work alongside the mayor. Funding for the city has increased, he said, because of the mayor’s relationships with federal, state and county officials.
Importantly, he said, residents aren’t confused about who runs the city, and to whom they can bring their issues.
Having a city manager in charge, Burton said, means “you’ve got that extra layer of bureaucracy that makes it difficult to serve the residents.”
His office holds more power, but there’s always a discussion he stays out of: His $153,000 compensation package.
“I didn’t run to be there for the amount of money I receive. I ran to be the mayor to provide a service to our residents,” said Burton, who owned an electrical contracting company before getting into city politics. “I knew I could make less money as the mayor, but I was OK with that.”
Clarification • An earlier version of this story listed Orem’s city manager as the highest paid in that job among Utah’s major cities, but his figure included a severance package, as he resigned at the end of 2022.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.
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