Citizen involvement is crucial in municipal elections

Deseret News
Citizen involvement is crucial in municipal elections

By Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb
Published: Sunday, April 19, 2009 12:57 a.m. MDT

Last week witnessed an annual meeting of Utah politicians who control hundreds of millions of dollars and impact our quality of life, and even the most mundane of activities. Mayors, city council members and their staffs just finished another meeting of the Utah League of Cities and Towns in St. George. Among the many topics of hallway discussion were this year’s municipal elections.

Why should anyone pay attention to the municipal elections this year?

Wise citizens observe and participate in local contests. These local officials touch our daily lives more than leaders at any other level of government. They pave our streets and fill the potholes, provide us with water, sewer and sometimes electricity. They collect our garbage and provide police and fire protection. They maintain our parks and offer Little League baseball and other recreation programs. And they determine through zoning laws what we can do with our property. If you think about your daily interactions with government, it is at the city and town level where the real works gets done.

Municipal elections are mostly nonpartisan, avoiding the usual partisan and ideological divisions. What matters is if a candidate can get the job done, not whether he or she is an R or D. However, city politics can be as nasty as politics at any level, or worse. Neighbor is sometimes pitted against neighbor, and it can get ugly, highly antagonistic and very personal.

Municipal politics are also unique because leaders are very close to citizens. They are neighbors, and you see them at the grocery store and at church. A citizen can get an audience with the mayor or council member of any city in the state. Leaders tend to be responsive to citizen concerns.

What’s more, a single vote can have a big influence in these elections. Turnout is often very light, so the impact of each vote is magnified. In each election, a number of municipal candidates are elected by just a handful of votes. Your vote can make a big difference, so you should get involved, support the candidate of your choice and be sure to vote.

What are some of the most interesting and important races?

One of the hotter “hallway” topics at the league meeting was discussions surrounding the political futures of Utah’s three longtime mayors, who each face a degree of voter fatigue. Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan is likely to seek an unprecedented fifth term to lead his growing community, which in some ways has become the chief competitor to Salt Lake City. Dolan is a respected politician who has tremendous influence in Salt Lake County and the state Legislature. He delivered the Real Salt Lake soccer stadium to Sandy and is competing for a Broadway-style theater. Yet, despite his success and clout, Dolan has experienced close elections. His compatriot, former House Speaker Greg Curtis, lost his Sandy legislative seat last year, so potential Dolan opponents are smelling vulnerability. Rapid growth, Dolan-fatigue and cronyism are always issues in Sandy. Dolan will likely face a real challenge this year.

In Murray, landscaper Dan Snarr was the Cinderella candidate no one took seriously in 1997, but he won the mayorship. Popular and effective, he oversaw the demolition of smokestacks and replaced them with an enormous, state-of-the-art medical center, and he has also bolstered retail and economic development. Known for behavior unusual to Utah politicians (handlebar mustache, motorcycle ventures), Snarr has become a Utah character. But Snarr will face a stiff challenge from well-respected Murray council member Krista Dunn. As with any multi-term, full-time official, Snarr has accumulated critics wanting change. Snarr and Dunn will wage grassroots, door-to-door campaigns.

In Provo, Mayor Lewis Billings has ruled the roost for 12 years and hasn’t announced whether he will seek a fourth term. But he already has three likely opponents, including state Rep. Steve Clark, businessman John Curtis and Don Allphin, chair of the city’s Lakeview North neighborhood. Billings has been a strong, progressive mayor, taking on big projects like the iProvo broadband network and not being afraid of controversy. But in the process he has collected plenty of critics and likely faces a tough re-election this year.

Can a mayoral or city council position become a steppingstone to higher office?

Absolutely, although it doesn’t happen frequently. Astronaut and former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn got his start in Salt Lake municipal politics. Jim Hansen, longtime congressman from Davis County, cut his political teeth on the Farmington City Council. Longtime politician J. Bracken Lee bounced around a lot of political offices, including city posts. A number of past and current state legislators have municipal experience. Service at the city level is an excellent way to break into politics and gain valuable experience.

We also want to note the retirement this year of West Valley City Mayor Dennis Nordfelt, one of Utah’s best and most beloved local leaders. Nordfelt combined the virtues of strength, intelligence, humility and great leadership to emerge as the model political leader. He will be greatly missed.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail:
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