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Lots of new mayors — lots for them to learn

UTAH COUNTY — It felt a little like the first day of school.

At least that's what Andrew Jackson said of the first meeting Thursday night with the new Mountainland Association of Governments executive council, made up of mayors and county representatives from Wasatch, Summit and Utah counties.

Jackson is the new executive director of MAG this year and said out of the 37 mayors on the council, 17 are new, 16 of which are from Utah County.

Sixteen new mayors seems like a big number to many like Jerry Washburn, Orem mayor of 10 years. Most, though, believe that although the new mayors will have a learning curve, they will also bring new energy, ideas and perspectives.

MAG, Utah County Council of Governments and the Utah Lake Commission are organizations that many of the news mayors will have to work together on and which will take the brunt of the inexperience.

Each of these councils' first meetings over the past month ran a little longer than normal due to overviews and explanation of the organizations and their purposes. But many of the second- or third-term mayors expect the new mayors to catch on to everything within a few months.

Chairman of MAG, Lewis Marchant, said the councils will be a place where the mayors can learn even faster their responsibilities as they interact with more experienced mayors.

The new mayor of Lehi, Bert Wilson, is excited about this aspect and said it will unify the new and old mayors while being able to participate in countywide organizations.

Washburn said the hardest part for him when he first became mayor was learning all the acronyms and technical language. But he said the full-time staff of the various councils and his own city made up for his lack of knowledge at the beginning.

"I never did feel panicked," Washburn said. "You just have a lot to learn and that was my feeling. I needed to get on board so I could be an effective communicator."

To help bridge the knowledge gap between the old and new mayors of MAG, Jackson traveled 650 miles during the first couple of weeks of January to visit each new mayor's municipality and spend about an hour with each of them, getting them up to speed.

Bruce Call, new Pleasant Grove mayor, said he felt more comfortable being on the countywide councils because there were so many other mayors in his position.

"It was nice knowing it was not just me who would have to hit the ground running," Call said.

He said this type of learning curve also exists when people start at a new business, but good judgment will be what leads the new mayors, and the jargon will come with time.

Call was one of 11 mayors in Utah County who didn't have to run against an incumbent last November. Five of the new mayors did and won. Only four Utah County incumbent mayors won new terms.

Many of the old and new mayors of Utah County believe the turnover was high because of voter unrest, anti-incumbent feelings or a need for change in light of the economic downturn. Others say it was just a coincidence.

Utah County's new mayor total outnumbered Salt Lake, Davis, Summit and Wasatch counties combined.

While seemingly high, the mayoral turnover this year wasn't that different from the election four years ago when Utah County voters elected 15 new mayors.

Utah County saw just eight new mayors in the election eight years ago, all of whom replaced mayors who did not seek re-election.

Utah County Commissioner Larry Ellertson said Utah County may have seen more mayors in the past couple of elections due to a more conservative bent and the feeling of needing to be involved. Instead of going against the status quo, he said many in Utah County may just choose to elect a new mayor.

Ellertson said having so many new mayors does have the tendency to slow down the process of some projects the county has been working on for several years like the Murdock trail.

He said all the old mayors were on board with the project; now the new mayors will have to be educated and decide if they agree with it.

The process does provide the county an opportunity to review and reevaluate, Ellertson said.

One of the big challenges mayors will face is the economic downturn and deciding how to cut spending, he said.

New mayors of Provo and American Fork, John Curtis and James Hadfield, said that is what they've seen as the most difficult process so far.

Ellertson said having so many new mayors in Utah County won't bring a dramatic change so much as course corrections.

Washburn agrees and said he is not concerned with the large turnover.

"I think the wonderful thing about all this is that we can change leaders at a mass scale and still have continuity," he said.

e-mail: slenz@desnews.com