Republicans will hold a veto-proof majority on the Salt Lake County Council come January, raising questions about what they’ll accomplish in the year ahead and whether they’ll torpedo Democratic Mayor Jenny Wilson’s plans.
With two council seats up for grabs for the first time in years, Democrats had hoped to secure their first majority since 2010. Instead, Republicans strengthened their ranks. Political newcomer Dea Theodore will replace Max Burdick in District 6 and former South Jordan Mayor Dave Alvord will replace Michael Jensen in District 2. In a last-minute surprise, Laurie Stringham edged Democratic incumbent Shireen Ghorbani for an at-large seat. Republicans now hold six of the nine council slots.
The day after the county certified its election results, the Salt Lake County GOP sent party members an email highlighting their priorities. Many are bipartisan, including public safety, increased recreation opportunities on the west side, watershed protection, wildfire danger mitigation and transportation in the county’s canyons. Others target past council members and Wilson herself, calling the county budget “bloated,” its spending “out of control” and implying that the mayor’s staff is overpaid.
Wilson, however, appears to be taking the GOP’s extra council clout in stride.
“We’ve had a productive council over the years,” Wilson said. “I would hope we find areas of common interest and common solutions. I’m optimistic that can be done, even with the shift.”
The county will spend much of 2021 battling the coronavirus pandemic and distributing vaccines — issues that shouldn’t cause any partisan squabbles, Wilson said. The mayor also has the benefit of having served on the County Council for more than a decade before becoming mayor in 2019. For most of that time, GOP members held a majority.
“I’m used to working with Republicans,” Wilson said. “While I think the election gets at people sharing party values [that] can divide, often, I think once people sit in the council chair, they feel a commitment to governing.”
Richard Snelgrove, a Republican who has served as an at-large council member since 2010, said he looked forward to the perspective the three incoming members will bring to the council.
“With three council members gone and three taking their place,” Snelgrove said, “it’s going to add a degree of freshness.”
Stringham is an educator with an arts background and is the first at-large council member elected from the county’s west side. Theodore has a biology degree and has taken a keen interest in water quality impacts from past mining in the Cottonwood canyons. Alvord has a medical degree in dentistry and has advocated for more trails and recreation in the Oquirrh Mountains.
“Democrats and Republicans work well together. We always have since my time being on the council,” he said. “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Both Snelgrove and Aimee Winder Newton, another Republican council member first elected in 2014, said politics on the county level aren’t prone to the loud and divisive bickering seen in Washington.
“When we put people over politics, we get such better outcomes,” Winder Newton said. “We work well with our Democratic colleagues. I don’t see that changing.”
The two council members hinted that Republicans would support performance audits of the county but did not go into detail.
“I have my own ideas,” Snelgrove said, “but don’t want to discuss those until it’s discussed with other council members.”
Winder Newton and Snelgrove were the only council members to vote against 2019′s property tax increase. Both welcomed further review of the county budget.
“[Government] has a tendency to want to grow and get bloated,” Winder Newton said, “so I do think that’s something we want to keep in check.”
The pandemic has given the council a good starting point, Winder Newton added, since county departments were forced to cut back in anticipation of economic disaster.
“Luckily, things weren’t as dire as we initially thought, but as things get added back in, we need to have good scrutiny,” she said. “If we look at further cuts, it’s going to be sitting down with the mayor and talking about overall goals with the county.”
A large portion of the county budget goes to public safety and criminal prosecution, Winder Newton added, making it hard to find deep cuts. Plus, many of the taxes the county collects are pass-through dollars for things like the Utah Transit Authority and other transportation funds.
“So sometimes it’s hard to compare apples to apples,” Winder Newton said, “but I’m all for digging in and seeing where our priorities are and looking for ways where we can be more effective and efficient.”
Democratic council member Jim Bradley is taking the long view about the county’s politics. He has served since the mayor-council government was formed in 2000 and previously served as a county commissioner.
“I don’t get too upset about this. It’s going to be more challenging, but that makes it more interesting as well,” Bradley said of the new GOP supermajority. “First of all, 90% of what we do is just taking care of business. It’s not political; it’s not even necessarily philosophical.”
He has seen council members come and go with campaign messages that they’re going to rein in government spending. But most people, Bradley said, don’t comprehend the complexities of county finances.
“It’s not understood by the general public, and it’s never understood by novice politicians running for office,” he said. “There’s a learning curve for every new member of the council. Then they start figuring out, ‘Here are all the services the county provides, and I didn’t know half of them.’ We all do it. I did it as well.”
As a veteran in county politics, Bradley said he’s learned campaign catchphrases and allegiances to party machines fade soon after a candidate takes office. He added that he looked forward to helping the incoming members understand the county’s nuances.
“The civility of it is really important,” Bradley said. “What you will not see on the local level is the political mayhem that’s going on in the national level.”