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Pignanelli and Webb: Why city elections are critical to Utah's future

FILE - People board a red line train at the Bingham Junction Trax Station in Midvale on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.
People board a red line train at the Bingham Junction TRAX Station in Midvale on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Iranian mischief, foreign opposition research and Chinese antagonism are dominating headlines. But in politics, the direct and immediate impacts on our lives are made by local city officials who fix our roads and make sure the sewer system works. We take a look at the importance of municipal elections this year.

The municipal filing deadline has passed and a crop of candidates are seeking election or re-election for mayor and city council positions. What should Utahns expect to see, hear and feel as the electioneering soon begins?

Pignanelli: "The city is the nerve center of our civilization. It is also the storm center.” —Josiah Strong

City council members have an automatic ticket into heaven. Their self-sacrifice of serving ungrateful constituents, while enduring multiple grueling meetings, is best compensated with eternal glory. Of course, after their time in the worst job of American democracy there is nothing in the nether regions that would scare them anyway.

American electioneering is changing rapidly. The political storms Utahns will encounter this year will be the initial winds of the cyclone to hit in 2020. Vote by mail is now solidified, forever altering the traditional strategies of GOTV (get out the vote), messaging, literature drops, October surprises, etc. While lawn signs remain ubiquitous, candidates will focus more on Facebook and Instagram. Residents of the larger cities will likely receive mail pieces and phone calls that are targeted to their personal concerns, as developed by some artificial intelligence software. The retail aspects of politics, (i.e. door-to-door canvassing, cottage meetings, etc.) continue, because they are still effective tools of persuasion, especially with technology to ensure maximum efficiency.

The poor souls who endure a campaign for the privilege of ensuring our garbage is collected, the streets are safe and barking dogs are silenced, deserve thanks and praise. Hopefully, they can put in a good word for the rest of us with Saint Peter.

Webb: These are crucial elections and voters ought to be paying close attention to them. Most Utah cities, and essentially all of them along the Wasatch Front, face one enormous challenge — rapid growth. How city leaders deal with that growth will determine the quality of life in their communities — and ought to be the focus of this election.

By 2050, when my grandchildren will be adults and raising families, some 2 million more people will live in Utah, mostly along the Wasatch Front. That means crippling road congestion, bad air quality, more sprawl, less open space, poor housing choices and higher taxes — unless city leaders do the right planning and make the right decisions today.

This is the biggest long-term challenge facing Utah, and the Legislature can’t solve it; the governor can’t solve it; business leaders can’t solve it (although they can all help). It is local elected officials who are on the front lines of this battle. They must turn rapid growth into a positive, instead of a negative, and that will take courage and far-sighted leadership.

I heard Robert Grow from Envision Utah say the other day that by 2065, Utah County will have the equivalent of the entire current population of Salt Lake County dropped on it. That’s mind-boggling! Imagine every person, business and building in Salt Lake County moving to Utah County. Utah County mayors and council members had better plan well.

Voters need to elect leaders who won’t fight growth, because it is inevitable. But they must implement wise policies and planning to preserve Utah’s enviable quality of life.

The mayoral contest in Utah’s largest city is underway with an abundance of candidates. What are the politicos saying about this key contest?

Pignanelli: For 40 years, the Capitol mayoral primary narrowed the field to “right-of-center” (or sometimes centrist) and left-of-center candidates, with the latter always prevailing. This cycle, the entire flock is positioning left on ideology, with the differences based upon government service or business experience. A general appeal to voters is unlikely to work. The two successful candidates will utilize technology and personal reactions to identify and push their core supporters. Because there the field is so large, and the resulting threshold small, reliable predictions are stymied.

Webb: The conventional wisdom is that James Dabakis, with a solid base, will make it through the August primary election. It’s impossible to predict what other candidate will join him on the final election ballot.

But some analysts believe Dabakis’ primary election vote total will be close to his ceiling. So his competitor in the final election may pick up most of the support of the other candidates and have a very good chance of becoming Salt Lake City’s next mayor.

Why should Utahns care about their city elections and the officials they produce?

Pignanelli: Although the nation (and many Utahns) view our beloved state as quasi-rural, it is not. We are one the most urbanized states in the country — more than 90 percent of residents live in a city. So the candidates elected, and the issues generated, impact residents even of adjoining cities.

Webb: Local leaders can help build a great future for an exploding population with a wide variety of convenient and inexpensive public transit options; vibrant, walkable and bikeable town and city centers where residents can live, play, shop and work; abundant open space, recreational opportunities, parks and trails; housing options for every lifestyle; and clean air and water.

Or, we can face a bleak, crowded, polluted and congested future.

That’s all that’s at stake in this election.