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Budget talks causing stir in West Jordan

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WEST JORDAN — Not many people would think of their city's budget as bathroom-reading material.

But then, most residents don't show an interest in their government's budget process until the city has already scheduled a hearing to raise taxes.

Except in West Jordan.

Here, residents will sit through a three-hour City Council work session — unable to hear what's being said — just to watch their city leaders quietly deliberate raising property taxes by at least $2 million. Even from the front row, details like whether city employees should receive a cost-of-living increase or residents should pay for street lights were impossible to hear without a microphone. And there purposely weren't any microphones.

"When we sit up on the dais and we put mikes out there, it becomes a different atmosphere then when we can just chat and go back and forth and be less formal," Mayor Dave Newton said. "Certainly we don't want to stop the public from viewing what was going on, but that wasn't the most important part of this (meeting) in my opinion. The most important thing was for the council to discuss and weigh these decisions, because these decisions aren't easy, and it's hard when you've got an audience to do that."

The City Council normally doesn't use microphones during work sessions, but when fewer people attend the meeting, it's possible for residents to join the council at their table to hear better, Newton said. In this case, with so many people in attendance, that wasn't possible. Even a recording of the meeting, which was posted on the city's Web site the next day, was equally inaudible in parts.

Newton says, in retrospect, he may have done things differently. The budget is creating enough stir in the city to prompt an unofficially formed group of about 40 residents to meet twice a week — including on Saturday mornings at 7:30 a.m. — just to slog through several 6-inch binders that are the city budget. Newton says he values the group's input — several of the group's suggested budget cuts have already been implemented by the City Council — and he doesn't want to discourage public participation.

The Open and Public Meetings Act doesn't specify that amplification must be used in public meetings in order for city councils to "conduct their deliberations openly," but allowing the public to hear council discussions is an important part of inviting public participation and an assumed component of an "open" meeting, says Tim Smith, a Salt Lake attorney who specializes in the open meetings act.

"The public isn't being allowed to participate in the process if the city council is holding a discussion that no one can hear," Smith said. "At the very least, it's not going with the intent of the act, if not outright violating it. It's basically saying the public is going to interfere with our decision-making process if they can hear what we're saying, so we're going to make it so they can't hear what we're saying because it will be easier for us to make a decision."

Some residents expressed frustration at not being able to hear during this — and other — meetings, but members of the West Jordan Budget Advisory Committee have not been deterred. Some of the committee even sought out one-on-one meetings with the city manager to clarify what was muddled.

"I think it would be nice if, in these work sessions, if they made an effort so people could hear them better, especially when it's going to have such a big impact on people," said Clive Killpack, who helped organize the residents' budget committee. "We're thrilled that at least they're listening to us and considering things we've recommended."

So far, the council has whittled about $490,000 from the city budget, which includes several cuts suggested by the committee. The council intends to cut another $200,000, increase revenue by $2 million through taxes or fees passed on to residents and possibly pursue a $30 million general obligation bond, which would have to be voted on by residents.

In the mean time, the committee is looking for more solutions to suggest to the council, which are more than welcome, Newton says.

"I think we need more of this kind of community involvement, and not less," Newton said. "When you can get 27 people looking at things from different viewpoints, it should be a great help. ... We want to get these ideas out there, get them on the table, and look at them. Nobody has the corner on new ideas."

E-mail: achoate@desnews.com