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About Utah: A mayor with a healthy midlife crisis

PROVO — When his constituents meet John Curtis for the first time, if they don’t say it, they think it:

"Wait a minute! You’re not 24!"

They’re right; he isn’t 24, but the 56-year-old Provo mayor sure does act like it.

For going on six years now — he’s just past the halfway point of his second four-year term — he’s Tweeted, Snapchatted, Facebooked, Instagrammed, Periscoped, Pinterested, hashtagged and blogged Provo’s image into hip, trendy, innovative and — to use a term from Curtis’ day — modern.

The Interneted world has taken notice. After Provo used social media to help lure Google Fiber to town in 2013 — just the third city in the country to acquire the super-fast fiber-optic service — and then celebrate the accomplishment by shouting about it from the online rooftops, Forbes lauded Curtis as “a great example of social media savvy.” Last year, at the the Golden Social Media Conference Expo in Reno, Nevada, the Provo mayor was presented with the coveted Golden Post Award, given to America’s “Top Elected Official on Social Media.” This year he was again a Golden Post finalist but was edged out by Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri — another Google Fiber city.

Curtis has 5,000 friends on Facebook, 4,000 followers on Twitter, and his blog, Provo Insider, attracts thousands of hits daily.

Intrigued how a former businessman and middle-age, slightly balding, always smiling father of six and grandfather of four transformed himself and his city into a cutting-edge laboratory for all things online, the Deseret News sat down (in person) for a conversation with the mayor of Provo.

DN: Thank you for taking the time today. How often do people comment that you act like you’re 24?

JC: I get that quite a bit, actually. I feel like that’s a huge compliment. My bones tell me I’m not 24 and never will be again, but I aspire to be 24, I’ll put it like that. The way 24-year-olds think and act motivates me and energizes me. I have to say I’m extremely jealous of the millennials. I would love to have grown up with what they have right now.

DN: What brought on this healthy midlife crisis?

JC: Early on we caught onto social media in a way we don’t see anyone else doing in government, and that forces you into a younger mindset, so that’s a big piece of it.

Another piece is this fun, exciting demographic we have in our city. I’ve got somewhere close to 50,000 college students in my town of 118,000 people. If I’m not thinking along social media lines, I’m not connecting to a third to a half of my residents. These are people who haven’t gotten a lot of attention from government previously, because if you speak in the formal stodgy way government speaks, they’re not going to listen. But if you Tweet or Snapchat or Periscope or things like that, they listen.

DN: How did this social media revolution begin for you?

JC: When I was running for mayor (in 2009) I watched my oldest daughter, a professional designer, get 10,000 views a day on her design blog. I decided I had to figure out how I can have a thought, go to the computer, and share that with 10,000 people at no cost. So when I came into office we did a blog.

DN: Was it an easy sell?

JC: I was a little bit alone in those early days trying to convince everyone it was a good idea. They said, “OK, if it’s important to you, we’ll try it.” In the beginning we’d look at our statistics and it said we had like six people a day looking, but we just kept at it. The first July Fourth parade I rode in, three or four people shouted out, “We love your blog.” I came back to the office and said: “It’s working. Even though it looks like six people are looking at it, it’s working.” So we started pouring in more resources and quickly learned it was this amazing tool that we could use to get a message instantaneously to tens of thousands of our residents — and they’d read it. There’s no other way for a politician to do that.

DN: An example?

JC: One of the big breakthroughs for the blog was towing. I’d heard for years that towing was a problem and I kept thinking if you’d just park where you’re supposed to park you wouldn’t get towed. That was my mindset. When I saw that in its next meeting the City Council was going to talk about an element of towing, although not about citizen complaints, I thought maybe we should be talking about towing in a broader sense. So in a blog entry I titled “We’re getting carried away here,” I wrote, “If you have a story about towing you want me to share with the City Council, send it to me.” That was Monday morning. Tuesday afternoon I walked into the City Council with a thick stack of printed-out responses. We’d had 30,000 views in 24 hours and over 700 stories. I laid that stack down in front of the council and said, “I think we have a problem.” That’s when we realized the power the blog has to influence policy.

DN: What changed with towing as a result?

JC: We throttled back a system that was aggressive and predatory. People would pull into a parking lot after an inch of snow fell on the ground, then get their car towed when the sun came out and melted the snow and they were two inches over the line. There were hundreds of stories along those lines. It wasn’t as simple as if you park where you’re supposed to park you won’t get towed. And it wasn’t a $25 fine, it was $300 cash that night to get your car back. And the city wasn’t getting a penny. The person making the decision to tow was the guy who got the money. It motivated me to dig in and make some changes.

DN: Social media, then, really gets the word out?

JC: It opens the door to so many things. We started our rooftop concert series five years ago, a free concert once a month during the summer. It’s called rooftop because it started on a parking garage rooftop, but we publicize it heavily online, and last year it outgrew the rooftop and we brought it down to the street. At one concert last summer we had 32,000 people in the streets of Provo just having a ball.

DN: Tell us about your state-of-the-city speech this year.

JC: It was 100 percent social media. I think we had 1,300 viewers watching live online, and more who watched it later. Our largest traditional state-of-the-city has been attended in person by maybe a couple of hundred. And the couple of hundred are your normal political junkies, while the couple of thousand who tuned in this year represent what we call our soccer moms, people who otherwise wouldn’t be paying attention to what we’re doing. Every city has the dozen or so people who come to every City Council meeting and comment at every public comment period. We know what they’re going to say. And because they’re the loudest, it’s as if their voices represent everybody. But they don’t represent everybody; that’s often not how everybody feels.

DN: What kind of feedback are you getting from college students?

JC: I think people right now feel like there’s a little magic in the air in Provo, especially the students. Many students’ outlook previously was not positive. They got the vibe that they weren’t wanted here, or appreciated. That’s radically changed, from “I couldn’t wait to graduate and get out of here,” to “Now I don’t want to leave.”

DN: How important to you is the city’s relationship with Brigham Young University?

JC: BYU is a substantial part of who we are, and to try to say different is a mistake. It’s critical to have a good relationship with them, but it’s also critical to establish our own identity as a city. That’s what we want, and that’s what they want too. They want a strong city, and we want them to be a part of it.

DN: With a population that’s more than three-fourths LDS, how do you reach out to the non-Mormon community?

JC: There is this stereotype that Provo is just all white males going to church on Sunday. We’ve tried hard to change that stereotype. I think that people who come here will tell you we are embracing everybody. That’s my aspiration. It’s about who you are, not what you believe. Almost five and a half years ago people came to us and said this is nuts, you can’t buy alcohol on Sunday in the city. We realized we were enforcing our standards by law on everyone and we didn’t want to do that. So the City Council removed the ban on Sunday alcohol. We don’t get to mandate standards. We try to listen to everyone.

DN: You’ve come out strongly in favor of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for Provo. Why?

JC: Because I can’t see being where we want our city to be 30 years from now without BRT.

DN: What exactly does BRT entail?

JC: It’s got a lot of the characteristics of TRAX, but it doesn’t run on rails, it runs on dedicated lanes, and costs half as much. It’s a 60-foot elongated bus with side entry. So you don’t get on one at a time and pay your fare one at a time. Everybody loads at once and is prepaid and there are a limited number of stops on a direct route. We’ve had massive pushback — because it’s change. I remember when TRAX went into Salt Lake, I was one of those saying, “Nobody will ride it, look at all those empty buses.” Now, what would Salt Lake do without TRAX? I have no doubt about two things. One is some of the things people are complaining about BRT probably will be true. The other is, if we don’t do it we will be immensely sorry because we need this infrastructure.

DN: Favorite part of your job?

JC: I love problem-solving. BRT, iProvo, these gnarly problems that have haunted the city forever, and I get to work with a really strong team to do something about them.

DN: Will you run again in 2017?

JC: I don’t have that answer yet. There are lots of things compelling me toward running and there are lots of things that say you’re good, stop right here. Politicians and athletes stay too long, inevitably. This fall I think is the time to decide, because if I don’t run I want to give people plenty of time to decide if they want to run.

DN: What would Ebenezer Hanks, first mayor of Provo in 1849, say if he could be transported to 2016?

JC: I would hope he would say this is fun; that he’d look at what’s going on and say, “I didn’t know you could have so much fun.”