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West Valley City Journal

City officials outline, weigh pros and cons of its form of government

Mar 09, 2023 12:01PM ● By Travis Barton

City officials discussed the pros and cons of forms of government. (File photo City Journals)

Could West Valley City’s form of government change? Until recently, the subject was never really broached. 

On Feb. 7, at the request of Councilmember Scott Harmon, city administrators gave a form of government presentation to the West Valley City Council explaining how a change could occur and the pros and cons of each form of government. 

Harmon said the city’s form of governance is in the “top 10” comments he gets from residents. 

“It’s probably top two as far as passion and importance of it,” he added. 

West Valley City currently operates under a council-manager format where the council acts as the legislative body, setting policy and the city manager implements that policy running day-to-day operations as the city’s CEO. 

While there are several forms of government with each having minor differences, the two primary forms are West Valley’s council-manager and a council-mayor form of government. 

The council-mayor, or more commonly known as the “strong mayor” format is what cities such as Sandy and West Jordan currently operate. In this form the council sets policy legislatively through budget and ordinance while the mayor sets administrative policy and oversees day-to-day operations. 

Sandy and West Jordan, for example, have a mayor and seven-person council. West Valley City has always operated under the council-manager format with six councilmembers and the mayor essentially serving as the chair of the council and voting member. 

City Manager Wayne Pyle presented some of the advantages and disadvantages to each, acknowledging that having served as both city manager and assistant city manager in the city since 1997, he is prone from experience to recognize the benefits of council-manager. 

He identified, and pointed out these are widely accepted, advantages with a city manager includes having someone with a higher education level who is usually professionally trained and experienced. 

Staffs under a city manager are typically longer tenured, also professionally trained and experienced. “Therefore the policies are better executed in that environment,” Pyle explained. 

Having that stability allows the council and mayor to better “formulate long standing policies,” he said, using Fairbourne Station as an example. 

In a council-mayor form, that stability might not happen due to staff turnover as mayors bring in their own people who may or may not be professionally trained. 

The last advantage mentioned was cost, as cities with a council-mayor format tend to duplicate staff with each having its own administrative, advisory or legal staff.  

The primary disadvantage presented was confusion from residents or outside officials from other entities not knowing who to work with for specific needs. Meaning city officials must continually educate people on the city’s process and organization.

Another potential con was the perception that the city manager has too much power. “I believe this to be an unfounded fear based on the structure,” Pyle said, noting the form gives checks and balances to elected officials and city managers. The council sets the policy and the city manager’s job is to “make sure those policies are carried out,” Pyle added. 

Having a “strong” mayor is what residents are more familiar with giving them a “direct relationship to their elected mayor,” Pyle said. 

Residents get to elect who the face of their city is in the mayor, whereas they don’t vote for the city manager, who is appointed by the mayor and council. Having the mayor as the focal point can reduce confusion.

Relationships can be facilitated more easily by the mayor representing the city in external organizations. 

One concern could be accountability as the council can terminate the city manager but the mayor only leaves by changes in election years. 

“Either form can work or not work depending on what’s going on from an environment standpoint,” Pyle said.

He highlighted how there can be good and bad managers or an expert mayor. 

“There’s no exclusion, it’s really more of what’s more likely from the pros and cons,” he said summing up the presentation. 

“I can see the benefits of both,” Harmon said after the presentation, noting he’s now worked with both forms. 

“Part of me feels like we ought to let the citizens have the option every once in a while and see what they want,” he said. 

Councilmember Tom Huynh liked the idea of letting people “test the water” and choose themselves. 

Huynh, who appreciated Pyle being “very honest and frank” in his presentation, pointed to his own upbringing in Vietnam where government officers abused their power and found the checks and balances in government refreshing after arriving here. 

“The most important thing here is the checks and balances,” he said. 

But Huynh felt that could be achieved just as well in the council-mayor form. That if a mayor makes an appointment, the council can reject or approve that.

He also noted Mayor Karen Lang is “everywhere” and that it’s already a full-time job. 

Amid his laundry list of concerns, he felt the city manager position is not as accountable to the public and that cost wouldn’t be an issue as long as there was openness between the council and mayor. Huynh also included that a city manager could decide to move elsewhere with a higher pay. 

“The training is good, I agree, but at the same time they can look for a higher paying job somewhere,” he said. 

He was also worried about the role of a city attorney and whether they represent the council or the city.  

Councilmember Will Whetstone said it “does seem like the council-manager form of government is more of an efficient type of government with the trained professionals and also the tenure and history of the city.” 

He hesitates though because the council-mayor form means when they elect the mayor, they’re doing so knowing who their leader will be. 

“If I’m paying taxes I get to elect who my leader is in my community,” he said, adding it “doesn’t have that feel” in the current form. 

Councilmember Lars Nordfelt highlighted that nationally more than half of cities have council-manager with that number growing. 

If action were to be taken to change the city’s form of government, the council would need to pass a resolution at least 75 days before the November election date and then hold two public hearings within 45 days of that resolution. 

The council would have 60 days to withdraw the resolution, but after that the vote would go to the people in the November election. 

If voted down, the city would have to wait four more years to hold the vote again. If voted for, then the new form of government would start in 2026 with elections taking place in 2025. 

A week later, both Huynh and Harmon expressed interest in studying further a possible change in government.