WEST JORDAN — With primary elections underway, West Jordan voters are preparing — for the first time — to send two candidates for strong mayor to the general election on Nov 5.
With a margin of only 68 votes during the 2017 general election, residents chose to transition the city from a council-manager form of government to a mayor-council form, commonly refered to as strong mayor form.
"In the new branch of government that they're going to, the mayor's executive side does not sit as a member of the council," explained David Church, general counsel to the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
He noted that under this form of government the mayor can veto council decisions and functions as the executive branch, whereas "the council, as the legislative body, only adopts policies and laws as appropriate for the city."
Under the current form of government, the executive role is filled by a city manager hired by the council rather than being elected by voters.
Church said the city's current form of government, the council-manager form, is not as common as the strong mayor form. Other than West Jordan, currently only Brian Head, Orem, Holladay, Cottonwood Heights and West Valley City operate as council-manager governments.
Candidates for strong mayor are councilmen Alan R. Anderson and Dirk Burton and Jim Riding, the city's current mayor.
Riding was elected mayor under the council-manager format on the same 2017 ballot that picked a strong mayor format. The four-year term he successfully ran for will be cut short if West Jordan residents choose not to elect him under the new strong mayor format.
"I've only been doing this for two years, and I've been able to make quite a few inroads with our legislators (and) other mayors (in) trying to promote West Jordan City as much as I can with economic development," he said, adding that he hopes to continue those endeavors.
"Two years is just not enough time," he said.
Riding, who noted he was opposed to the shift in government, said interference with his term limits is not the primary reason for his opposition.
He noted that under the current system "you only have to be 18 and popular" to be eligible to become "the CEO of a $160 million corporation." He pointed out that if you worked on the board of such a corporation you would want to see someone with more experience serve as its chief executive.
Another reason for resisting the change, he said, is fiscal conservancy. The 2020 budget, approved by the city in June, includes $186,182 for changing the form of government. The budget noted this line item was only half the total cost of the change, the other half will be reflected in the 2021 fiscal year.
Despite opposition to the new form of government, Riding said he feels qualified to fill the role. "I've been a general contractor, I've been a business owner before I worked for the city for 15 years. I understand the city, I understand how it's supposed to work and I'm ready to step in and do my job as a CEO."
Anderson also highlighted his qualifications for the position. "I have a master's degree in public administration, which is the same degree that city managers have," he said, adding that as mayor he would "lead the city to a better place."
He said he hopes to achieve this by advocating for economic development and applying new tax revenues from the market towards infrastructure. With regards to the shift in government, Anderson said he was happy to see the change.
"In general, the council manager form of government we're currently in is a good form of government, it just hasn't worked in West Jordan," he said, pointing out that the city does not have the best track record in terms of continuity of government.
"The only mayor that's been reelected to more than one term was a gentleman by the name of Julius Burton, back in the late 1960s," he said, adding that "about every two years, the council has changed city managers."
The city came under the spotlight on a number of occasion from 2014 to 2016 due to infighting, lawsuits and power struggles that culminated in the resignation of the city manager.
Anderson believes the constant change has prevented the city from having a clear direction and said he feels the strong mayor format will allow the West Jordan to have more of a seat at the table in discussions with the county and state.
An example of this, he said, is negotiations with Salt Lake County on the Olympia Hills high-density housing development.
Anderson said he is "generally unsupportive of" the project and noted that "it's hard to say these are the right places for high density when there's no plan for the infrastructure."
Although not in the confines of West Jordan, Anderson noted the project is likely to impact the city. He said there are still too many unknowns regarding how much the 6,300-unit development of will have on traffic and infrastructure, such as water and sewer.
Pointing to a "master plan study" that the Southwest Quadrant Mayors Council is conducting to determine the impacts of the development, he said, "My push for the Salt Lake County Council would be to wait on any kind of approval with Olympia Hills until the study is done."
The city's rapid growth is a point all mayoral candidates say they will take on if elected.
"We need more growth, we would like more growth," Riding said, noting that this includes housing because "to get economic development (and) businesses coming into the west side of the valley, they need more rooftops."
Riding noted, however, that growth will need to "be done wisely" and pointed to transit oriented developments, high density developments strategically placed near TRAX stations as a solution.
Burton also emphasized the importance of balancing growth with current infrastructure and noted that, if elected, he intends to continue "following our general use plan."
He praised West Jordan's Future Use Plan, noting that "particularly on the western side of the city that is less populated or less built out," the plan accommodates more growth.
"We need to make sure that the developers when they come in, they provide the infrastructure necessary for their development and for other future development that may be associated with theirs."
Similarly to Anderson, Burton said he is not "ready to give the green light" on the Olympia Hills development. "Although that's outside of the city, it will affect the city with infrastructure needs and traffic." He said those issues would need to be flushed out before he could throw support behind it.
Burton also hopes to tackle the issue of recent increases in water rates. He feels the increases have been too drastic and have placed a burden on the city's residents.
"My solution (would be) to do those more gradual and give more notice, particularly for businesses so they can adjust their budgets to accommodate a rate increase," he said.