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West Valley City Journal

Council split on putting government change on the ballot

May 08, 2023 03:44PM ● By Travis Barton

West Jordan voted to change their form of government from council-manager to council-mayor in 2017 and enacted in 2020. Seen here in 2019, the mayor sat on the dais with the council and was replaced with another councilmember. (File photo Erin Dixon/City Journals)

Potential of putting West Valley City’s form of government on this year’s ballot cooled in April as a slight majority of the council seemed to be against the idea. 

Discussions had heated up with even tentative plans being made by councilmembers in favor of the idea to place a resolution on a council agenda in April to kickstart the process. 

But after comments from Rep. Elizabeth Weight in an early April council meeting and feedback from residents to councilmembers, at press time there were no further plans for council to consider the ballot-placing proposal, though the matter is not forgotten as one councilmember plans to bring the idea to each resident’s home during his campaign this year. 

How it started

After an initial discussion in February where the different forms of government between council-manager (under which the city currently functions) and the council-mayor were presented, Councilman Tom Huynh requested the subject be broached again in a March 21 study meeting where Huynh said the council should informally vote whether to put this on the agenda for the first week in April. 

Huynh suggested they consider the council-mayor and seven voting members of the council as the other option to choose adding term limits to the mayor’s time in office. Some councilmembers balked at the hastiness. While Huynh felt they had enough time to consider the matter between Feb. 7 and March 21 to study the issue in addition to speaking about the idea multiple times, Councilmembers Lars Nordfelt, Don Christensen and Jake Fitisemanu all said they never spoke about what forms they could change to nor anything about term limits.

“This is something we can’t just jump into,” Fitisemanu said at the time with all three voicing a need to thoroughly study the topic and involve the public as much as possible. 

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. 

Nordfelt was against putting the form of government on the ballot. He noted the current form has “been working very well for our city.” With a city manager they have a qualified leader chosen by seven elected officials. 

“Seven heads are better than one and we can make better decisions as a council with one employee, our city manager, that we can hire or fire,” he said. With a mayor, he added, you would have to wait until the next election. 

The position would become more political, he argued, with the mayor making decisions to get votes and not in the best interest of the city whereas a city manager must enact the policies implemented by the council. Thus, diluting the power of the council. 

Plus, he added, it would increase costs, they would need to pay a full-time mayor and whoever the mayor hires in their office, pointing to Salt Lake City as an example of a larger mayor’s office. Some councils hire their own staff as well leading to duplicate efforts by council staff and city staff. 

“It’s too big of a risk,” he said, before later adding it’s their responsibility in the city’s representative republic to do what’s best for the city. 

“What we’ve had has been serving our city very well,” Nordfelt said. “Even if it’s a little bit harder for our residents to understand, but that’s why they elect us to study the issues…and make the decisions that will hopefully be best for our city in the long term.” 

“I think it’ll please the people who are seeking for power.”

Residents should decide the issue

Huynh highlighted Murray and Taylorsville as two examples of cities with a council-mayor form of government that run smoothly, having the mayor and the council as separate branches would serve as checks and balances. 

A city manager can leave if they get a better offer elsewhere, he argued, saying the mayor would also have to live in the city where the city manager does not. 

The council wouldn’t choose the new form, Huynh said, the people would choose it. “We’re not going to make the decision, they would make that decision for us.”

Fitisemanu said there were pros and cons to either form of government, emphasizing the need the educate residents. He guessed most of the council probably “had no clue” what being on the council actually entailed, how it functioned and that there were different forms of governments for cities prior to joining. 

While it is “up to the citizenry and absolutely their right” to choose, Fitisemanu said, “it’s also responsible and accountable for us to inform folks on what they’re voting on and let them make their own decision.” 

He advocated to form an ad hoc or resident committee or have town halls to further elicit community feedback. 

Councilmember Scott Harmon, who initially asked for a report from city staff on how a change could occur, supported a town hall. He was in favor of allowing the residents to vote. 

“They should have an option to vote on it,” he said. “They’re not all going to be well versed in that topic but to go 40-plus years without the option brought to them, I think it’s time.”

If the council did approve a resolution to put it on the ballot, they would need to hold two public hearings within 45 days and would have 60 days to withdraw the resolution, but after that the vote would go to the people in the November election. 

Harmon said to go through those meetings and pending public feedback, they can pull it back. 

Mayor Karen Lang said in the March meeting her feedback from residents was in favor of a change, and supported the idea to let them choose, but agreed education would be essential. 

Councilmember Will Whetstone, agreed with Nordfelt on many of his points, but felt residents should decide the issue. 

How it’s going

The council ended its March 21 meeting with plans to discuss what the next steps of a resolution and public engagement would be. But discussions in the March 28 and April 4 study meetings were postponed. 

Rep. Weight spoke to the council in the April 4 council meeting expressing concern at the process and the lack of public information on a potential decision that could “affect fundamental elements in our city’s governance.” 

Residents are unaware of the “various forms of government, contrasts, pros, cons” as well as the concept they might have to vote on this process within the year. 

“Even the council discussing a resolution step belongs in open focus meetings,” she said. 

Weight requested the council ensure organized public meetings are held, one in every district, with clear presentations about the forms of government with informational materials and summary reports prepared on what residents want. 

Two weeks later, April 18, Huynh said in the council study meeting that residents pay attention and the fact no one had come to speak or sit in on their meetings showed the lack of controversy on the topic. 

Huynh, who plans to run for reelection in District 1 for his fourth term, said he would be informing residents in his door-to-door campaigning. 

“(I plan) to bring this matter to every single voter on their front step,” he said. 

In his time serving in the city and campaigning (he’s run for mayor twice) he said about 100 people have asked him why they don’t change the form of government.

But other councilmembers said they heard differently from their residents. Fitisemanu said in his efforts, only two asked to consider the change. From the rest—his social media and visits to nine different community watch groups—voiced no desire to change. 

He wasn’t willing to put it on the ballot because of timing and “the fact folks aren’t raising this issue citywide.”

Whetstone, the de facto swing vote, said he only heard from one resident in favor of changing while the rest preferred to keep the status quo. 

“I don’t think in good conscience, I could ignore that,” he said, later adding, “I can’t vote for it without more input.” 

Whetstone said he too prefers the current form of government, but “won’t stand in the way of allowing residents the opportunity to choose.”

At press time, there were no further plans to discuss the matter further.