West Jordan residents will vote on city’s form of government, but some say that’s not the most pressing issue

Councilman and former mayor wants to clear up what he says is confusion about the city executive’s role.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe reads a statement regarding Councilman Jeff Haaga's recent citation during a council meeting Aug. 10, 2016. West Jordan's City Council approved a ballot measure Wednesday that will ask voters whether the city should change from its current council-manager makeup, which is no longer supported by state law, to a strong-mayor form with seven councilmembers.

Come November, West Jordan residents will have their third opportunity in 30 years to decide whether they want to change the way their government is structured.

Going against the advice of a residents committee tasked with providing recommendations on form of government, the City Council approved a ballot measure Wednesday evening that will ask voters whether the city should change from its council-manager makeup, which is no longer supported by state law, to a strong-mayor form with seven council members.

But the committee says such a move won’t solve the problems West Jordan faces.

“The quality and temperament of the elected officials is the most critical element in the successful operation of the city, regardless of the form of government,” said Joel Coleman, the committee chairman, during a presentation of the committee‘s recommendations.

This statement was likely in reference to public presence of infighting within West Jordan’s City Hall over the past few years. Most recently, two members of the council blocked Councilman Chad Nichols from participating in a meeting electronically, which he said was for “petty reasons” and “hurt feelings.” Mayor Kim Rolfe said he was threatened with “retaliation and ‘social media vindication’” if he didn’t agree to allow Nichols to participate.

“Changing the form of government should not be considered as a remedy for uncomfortable chemistry between council members,” the report concluded.

The council first approved the ballot item in January and received pushback from residents at its first public hearing on the issue in February. A few weeks later, it removed the measure from the ballot and created the committee to examine the pros and cons of the five forms of government.

After meeting twice a week for two months, speaking with city representatives from across the state and conducting other research, the committee presented two recommendations to the council.

The primary one was for the city to keep its current form of government, under which the mayor conducts council meetings and is authorized to sign contracts approved by the council but has the same voting rights as the other six council members.

However, the committee recommended that the council “become fully committed to implementing [the form] with fidelity” through a repeal of the 2013 ordinance that made the mayor a full-time city employee.

The committee’s secondary recommendation was that the city put a six-member council form of government on the ballot but continue to delegate executive responsibilities to a city manager.

The resolution that passed at Wednesday’s meeting followed neither recommendation.

“I look at this right now and just have to basically throw my hands up in the air and say, ‘You’re going to do what you want to do,’” said West Jordan resident Steve Jones during public comment on the resolution to put a seven-member council form of government on the ballot. “But here’s the promise I’m going to make you: We’ll vote this down. And when we do, you’ll have to listen to us for the next five years or so.”

Six residents spoke in favor of honoring the committee’s recommendation during public comment, and one spoke in favor of the strong-mayor form of government.

Councilman David Newton, who served as West Jordan’s mayor from 2006 to 2010, voted in favor of putting the strong-mayor question to the voters. He said the current form puts the mayor at a disadvantage in negotiations and is confusing for the residents, who assume the mayor’s in charge. Additionally, he said, it’s important for the head of the city to be accountable to the residents.

“Having an executive as the mayor that the citizens can take out of office if necessary by their votes ... is critical,” he said. “If we don’t do that, then we ought to recognize that our mayor here is not really a mayor — he’s chairman of the council.”

Nichols and Councilman Zach Jacob voted against the resolution to put the item on the ballot, with the latter raising concerns about the timing of the move.

Mayoral candidates typically run for a four-year term, but candidates in this year’s race now face uncertainty in light of the ballot item. If voters approved the form of government change, the mayor elected this year to take office in 2018 would have his or her term cut short when the system change took effect in 2020 — but he or she would still receive a paycheck for those latter two years.

The timing on this is bad,” said Jacob, who is running for mayor. The city would be better able to educate residents if it waited to put the measure on the ballot, he said, and would eliminate the uncertainty for term limits it would create now. “We’re not going to destroy the city in two years,” he said.

Councilman Chris McConnehey said he hopes asking the question of voters will allow the city to lay to rest a question that’s occupied time the council could be spending on more pressing issues.

“This has come up repeatedly, and it’s become a distraction from what we were sent to do. We’ve spent I can’t even tell you how many hours debating the form of government,” he said. “I want to get back to business.”

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