After running West Valley City government for two decades, city manager is retiring

Wayne Pyle, in his unelected position, has overseen the city’s rapid growth and increasing diversity — and challenges with homelessness.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wayne Pyle, who has been the West Valley City manager for over 20 years, calling the shots in Utah's second most populous city, is pictured on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, as he nears his retirement at the end of the year.

For more than 20 years, Wayne Pyle has been a major player in how West Valley City runs — but he’s not an elected official.

As city manager — in practical terms, the CEO — for Utah’s second-most populous city, Pyle has made decisions that have defined how a big portion of the Salt Lake Valley’s west side operates. Many of his accomplishments, though, are almost invisible to the regular resident, such as streetscapes, road improvements and buried power lines.

West Valley City is denser and more diverse than when Pyle, who is retiring at the end of the year, started on the job. It has more people and, according to census data, has become one of the most diverse areas in Utah.

The city, Pyle said, “is a much different-appearing city than it was 26 years ago when I started as the assistant city manager.”

West Valley City Mayor Karen Lang said Pyle has “done a very good job to lead the city and get good businesses, good developments — and move the city forward very well in his 20-plus years of service as city manager.”

During Pyle’s first year as assistant city manager, in 1997, the E-Center — now the Maverik Center — opened. Before the arena was built, Pyle said, West Valley City didn’t have any hotel rooms, where now it has thousands.

Before his tenure, he said, there was not a cohesive view on how the city should look like, how neighborhoods would become sustainable and how to approach growth.

At the beginning of his time as city manager, Pyle said, he got to work on an economic strategic plan to strengthen the city’s sales and manufacturing activity, and to stabilize the city’s finances — so it could afford to move the court system to City Hall and construct new city buildings.

Today, he said, West Valley City boasts more diverse housing, commercial opportunities and entertainment venues. One of the development projects Pyle has been involved with during his tenure is Fairbourne Station, a transit-oriented town center with higher-density housing, commercial and open space.

Pyle’s long tenure has made him one of the highest-paid city managers in Utah; in 2023, he made $367,000 in wages and benefits.

Though Pyle has made West Valley City his home for decades, he said a big part of him is in his hometown in Missouri, where his family lives.

“We’ve loved our time here in Utah, and plan on continuing our time in Utah because my children and grandchildren live here,” he said. “But I would like to have some more time to spend with my parents in their twilight years, along with my cousins and siblings and all of that.”

Pyle said he plans to do some consulting work for different international, private or military entities. And he said he and his wife may serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At age 59, he said, “it feels like if I am going to do anything different, I’ve probably got to get on it. I don’t have forever left here.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wayne Pyle, who has been the West Valley City manager for over 20 years, gives a tour of his project room adjacent to his office during a portrait session on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. Pyle who has called the shots in Utah's second most populous city, will be retiring at the end of the year.

Growth and diversity

When Pyle started as city manager in 2002, West Valley City’s population was 111,254, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. This year, the population is 136,938, the census bureau reported — an increase of 23%.

Pyle said facing that growth was one of his biggest priorities, along with trying to keep the city’s staff trained and satisfied.

The city’s demographics have also changed. In 2000, West Valley City’s population was 78% white. Today, according to census data, that number is at 44% — making the city one of the most diverse areas in Utah.

Pyle said he believes the city fares well in equitable job, educational and housing opportunities. And while West Valley City represents an important chunk of the Salt Lake Valley’s population, efforts to make it a successful city often go unnoticed.

“West Valley doesn’t get the credit it deserves, frankly,” Pyle said. “I think it shares in the general positive reputation that Utah has as a whole, and I think that’s well deserved by the state, for sure. West Valley is a big part of that, as well.”

West Valley City was part of another trend in Salt Lake County — the most significant rises in rent prices, according to a 2022 Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study that explores the apartment market along the Wasatch Front.

In rent prices, the analysis found, “ZIP code 84128 in West Valley City ranked first in absolute ($528 increase in average monthly payment) and percentage change (42.2%).”

Though the city has traditionally been home to some of the most affordable housing in the valley, Pyle said, even those units can be out of reach for some people.

“We’ve done a lot of things in the past, from a planning and zoning standpoint, to plan and hopefully allow for more housing where it’s appropriate from a density kind of standpoint,” he said, adding that those units should be near major transportation corridors.

Because the valley doesn’t have much more space to develop, he said, West Valley City has developed denser projects, with hundreds of town homes, condos and apartments built in the last five years.

“I think we’re doing everything we can do,” he said. “To help with that. I think, eventually the economy itself will turn and that pendulum will swing back, and housing will become more affordable.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wayne Pyle, who has been the West Valley City manager for over 20 years, gives a tour of his project room adjacent to his office during a portrait session on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. Pyle who has called the shots in Utah's second most populous city, will be retiring at the end of the year.

Homelessness, still unsolved

Throughout its history, West Valley City hasn’t been on board with county and state efforts to handle homelessness, Pyle said.

“What we have done ourselves is put together a very specific effort, that looks at both protecting the neighborhoods and the residents and citizens’ safety and communities, while at the same time trying to be compassionate, recognize what the homeless population’s needs are and get them steered towards those services,” he said.

Different city departments — including police, fire and public works — meet once a week to discuss how to tackle the issue, Pyle said. City efforts focus on directing people experiencing homelessness to available resources and enforcing municipal regulations.

“When you look at West Valley, you don’t see homeless encampments. We don’t allow illicit activity,” he said. “The encampment thing … is an example of what’s visible, but all the other stuff that’s not visible … is the crime, the drug use, the negative effect on the communities that can happen from that situation.”

A city can’t solve homelessness by itself, he said, as he argued that West Valley City has done as much as anybody else in trying to help this population, while also keeping the city clean.

Pyle said he keeps seeing efforts from other entities to find solutions to the homelessness challenge — such as Switchpoint, the organization that is managing the temporary overflow shelter in West Valley City.

However, before that shelter, city leaders and residents rejected a 2017 proposal to host a homeless shelter when Utah tried to decentralize the model and spread smaller facilities across the valley. That shelter ultimately landed in South Salt Lake.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Memorabilia in Wayne Pyle’s office following years of service as West Valley City manager for over 20 years, pictured Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, as he nears his retirement at the end of the year.

Who’s next?

West Valley City has hired an executive search firm to find a successor to Pyle.

There’s no obvious candidate to promote from within — as Nicole Cottle, who had been Pyle’s assistant city manager, resigned in July after 24 years working for the city.

Until a permanent manager is hired, the City Council appointed John Evans, who has been the fire chief since 2005, to be interim city manager — and John Flores, the city’s human resources director, is serving as interim assistant city manager.

Since Evans and Flores are also still running their departments, Mayor Lang has asked other city staffers to help out during the transition, “All the directors are going to have to step up,” she said. “Everybody knows we’re going to have five to six months of stepping up and helping with the duties, even the council.”

Lang said she hopes West Valley City can find someone who can work well with the staff and the community. One of her priorities, she said, is to find a manager who is thoroughly involved in community activities.

Pyle said he doesn’t have a preference for who should be the next city manager. He does believe there should be one — and that West Valley City should keep its current council-manager form of governance.

That form of government — different from the “strong mayor” format that Salt Lake City and many other Utah cities use — “has served West Valley City very well,” Pyle said. “There’s no way we would have made the progress that we’ve made over the last four decades … in any other form of government.”

A few times in recent years, the West Valley City Council has discussed changing to a strong mayor government — where the mayor acts as head of the executive branch, instead of a hired city manager. The idea has never made it onto a ballot, for residents to vote up or down.

Such a change, Pyle said, would make city administration “more political, more expensive and less effective.”

Lang said she would back an effort from council members to change the system, but not enough members have expressed an interest. “I can support them, but I’m not going to run anything myself,” she said.

With Pyle leaving, Lang said, a new face will be a change in how West Valley City works.

“My biggest hope,” she said, “is to have somebody come in that has some fresh ideas, and can maybe help move us in directions we hadn’t thought about.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wayne Pyle, who has been the West Valley City manager for over 20 years, is pictured on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, as he talks about how much has changed just outside his office window which faces Valley Fair Mall. Pyle will be retiring at the end of the year.

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.