Inside the crowded, and awkward, race for Sandy mayor

With eight candidates — including four sitting City Council members, the council’s executive director, a former longtime council member and a well-funded outsider — this contest has more than its share of intrigue.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eight candidates are running to be Sandy’s next mayor in a competitive race as campaign signs pop up around the city on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.

Sandy is dotted in campaign signs. Mailboxes are full of candidate flyers. Residents are getting phone calls and answering one knock at the door after another.

This happens when eight candidates run for mayor.

Yes, eight.

This unusually large fall field, in which most of the candidates are hustling for votes, is in reaction to a few things. First, the city is trying out ranked-choice voting, which meant there was no primary. Second, Mayor Kurt Bradburn decided one term is enough, so this is an open seat. And, third, the general consensus is Sandy’s government is broken and in need of repair.

“The last four years, it has been extremely frustrating,” said candidate Kris Nicholl.

“There is a leadership void in Sandy,” said Marci Houseman, another mayoral hopeful.

“If I don’t win,” said candidate Mike Applegarth, “I’ve got to get out of this business because it is driving me crazy.”

What went wrong? And what’s the status of this crowded race? Here’s a look inside Sandy’s mayoral campaign, starting with who is running.

The candidates

The field includes four City Council members, the top staffer for the council and a former council member. Only three council members are not running for mayor.

The sitting members in the field are Brooke Christensen, Houseman, Nicholl and Monica Zoltanski.

Linda Saville ended her 24 years on the council in late 2019 and is now back on the campaign trail.

And then there’s Applegarth, he’s the executive director for the council, which means some of his opponents are also his boss.

“I’m basically risking my career as the staff guy,” he said, “because it is not likely that they are going to keep me around if I don’t prevail.”

If it sounds like recent council meetings might be awkward, the candidates would agree with you.

“It makes everyone a little more aware of what they are saying,” said Christensen, “and how they are treating each other.”

The other two in the race are Ronald Jones, a retired resident who ran because he dislikes ranked-choice voting, and Jim Bennett, the well-funded son of the late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett.

Jim Bennett said running against most of the council gives him an edge.

“I don’t have to beat up on anyone individually,” he said, “when I say the City Council is dysfunctional and isn’t working and the people who are part of that status quo shouldn’t be given the opportunity to perpetuate it.”

[READ MORE: Each candidate answered Salt Lake Tribune questions. Read their responses.]

A government in turmoil

In January, Bradburn sent an email to Sandy employees announcing he wouldn’t seek a second term and that he felt “strongly that I need to focus on my young family.”

He called serving as mayor, after unseating the city’s longest-serving mayor, Tom Dolan, “the honor of my professional life.”

But his term had more than the normal share of turbulence.

Shortly after taking office, the political novice gave himself a 10% raise, while he cut some city jobs, resulting in significant backlash. He ended up giving the raise back and then some, cutting his salary by $43,000.

In 2019, a series of errors greatly increased the fluoride in the drinking water. It made people sick, but the mayor didn’t go public for more than a week.

And the relationship between the mayor and the council has become acrimonious and, at times, nonexistent.

“Unfortunately, Sandy City has made the news far too many times for the wrong reasons,” Houseman said. “Sandy has a history of being one of the best-led cities in the state. We have lost our way in less than four years.”

Zoltanski argues that despite some disputes, the council is functioning, passing a budget, and giving a pay raise to police officers.

“Do we have differences? Strong personalities? Yes,” she said. “But it’s hardly grinding things to a halt.”

One decision council members did make was signing up the city for an election experiment. Like a number of other cities in Salt Lake County, Sandy is trying ranked-choice voting. And the candidates are not totally excited about that.

Ranked choice

Among the early competitors were Saville and Bennett. They expected they would face off with other challengers in a standard August primary, which would whittle the field to two for the general election.

That didn’t happen.

In April, the Sandy City Council adopted ranked-choice voting. In this method, there is no primary. Every candidate is on the fall ballot. Voters pick their favorite and then rank others second, third and so forth. The votes then are tabulated. The last place person is eliminated and those ballots are redistributed to those voters’ second choice. This goes on until someone wins a majority.

Saville said “it would have been a lot easier for me” if the city stayed on the old system. “The council chose that, and I have to respect it.”

Bennett had a stronger response.

“I don’t like it when people change the rules in the middle of the game,” he said. “There’s so much confusion out there. I think it was a mistake.”

Nicholl was among the council members who voted in favor of ranked-choice voting. She now questions that decision after talking to voters.

“I can see what their apprehension is,” she said. “They are scared.”

Zoltanski opposed the switch, believing it is “cumbersome and confusing.”

It is harder to get to know so many candidates, she said. “There is just too much noise out there.”

Jones is in the race largely because of the ranked-choice decision. He worries it jeopardizes election security, though Utah’s election officials strenuously dispute that. Even with his opposition, he wouldn’t say whom he plans to list as his second choice. Neither would Nicholl or Saville.

Zoltanski and Christensen are not sure they’ll list anyone after voting for themselves.

Bennett picked Nicholl.

Houseman picked Applegarth.

Applegarth picked Houseman.

What Houseman likes about ranked-choice voting is that when everything is done and a winner is declared, the majority of Sandy residents will find that the new mayor was one of their top choices.

Stan Lockhart, with Utah Ranked Choice Voting, says the Sandy mayor’s race is a prime example of why this alternative voting method is worth trying.

“It gives the voter the opportunity,” he said, “to more fully express their will.”

Ranked-choice voting is a big topic, but it isn’t the biggest according to most candidates. That distinction goes to growth.

Sandy rising

Utah’s housing crunch is being felt in this mostly affluent suburban city. Some parents are seeing their adult children unable to afford to live there. Older residents looking to downsize see few options. Developers circle, hoping to get the council’s approval to build bigger buildings and denser housing.

When these candidates knock on doors, the questions they receive most often are about how they would respond to pressure to add higher-density housing.

Bennett wants to ring City Hall with higher-density housing in what he calls an “urban island,” leaving much of the rest of the city as is.

Zoltanski doesn’t like finding lots in neighborhoods for bigger developments and instead says apartments, town homes and condominiums should go near Interstate 15 and transit options.

Houseman said her own daughter moved to Herriman because she couldn’t afford a place in Sandy. She wants to find places to build twin homes.

On Oct. 5, the council voted 5-2 to end its review of a development called The Orchard at Farnsworth Farms, off of 700 East near 11000 South. The council handed oversight back to the Planning Commission, allowing the project to proceed. The council previously voted to allow 10 units per acre.

A preliminary debate took place Sept. 28 and new campaign finance documents show that the developer, DAI Managing Partners, gave money to two mayoral campaigns around that time.

“It is telling, the keen interest developers have in Sandy politics,” said Zoltanski who questions those contributions and voted against the plan.

Campaign donations

Houseman received $3,000 from DAI on Sept. 27, the day before the preliminary debate on The Orchard. And she received $2,500 from Joe Salisbury, the main developer back in February.

Christensen also received $2,500 from Salisbury in May and $5,000 from DAI on Sept. 28.

Houseman and Christensen reject Zoltanski’s assertion of questionable connections. Houseman said this vote was to follow the standard process on a project that has been long in the making.

“All we did in that vote is say we are very comfortable with the changes our professional staff recommended,” she said. Houseman said Zoltanski was trying to “smear other candidates” with a “disingenuous” accusation.

Christensen said she’s been hosting community meetings and supported the development because the neighbors backed it.

“I know Monica is making a big deal out of it; that’s fine,” she said. “But I’ve been working on this project for two years, even before I considered running for mayor.”

Houseman said while Zoltanski often accuses her opponents of taking money from “special interests,” she noted that Zoltanski has accepted money from unions, which could also be considered special interests.

Zoltanski also criticized candidates who took money, or in-kind contributions, from Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Utah’s top billboard company.

Four candidates have received support from Reagan — Saville, Nicholl, Houseman and Bennett.

Campaign finance reports also show that Bennett has raised the most money in this race by far. He amassed more than $164,000. Nicholl came in second with more than $46,000. Jones, at $164, raised the least.

Bennett received at least $65,000 from his business partner Brent Allsop. The two are working on canonizer.com, intended to be a social media platform that helps lead to consensus on controversial topics. It remains a work in progress.

When asked who the front-runner is in this race, Applegarth said, “Money is always the No. 1 predictor of election outcomes, so ... .”

Christensen said it would be her and Bennett.

Bennett said, “I’m in a fairly strong position.”

Nicholl said she’s getting some good feedback going door to door.

Zoltanski believes she’s in the lead.

Saville said she’s not sure, but “I hope that it is me.”

And Houseman? She said this: “I don’t think anyone has any idea — truly.”

Correction: Oct. 18, 9:30 a.m. • An earlier version of this story misstated the reason for the spike in fluoride in the drinking water in 2019.