Local Elections Transform Communities

Local Elections Transform Communities
Posted on 10/31/2017

By City Manager John Park

I started working in local government a long time ago when someone actually trusted me with a badge, gun and patrol car, and expected me to change the world, as I knew it. I love local government because of how it literally transforms lives of individuals, families and even communities. In preparing to write this article, I thought of dozens of things that I have seen in local government that are truly transformational. Here are a couple:

In early October, I took the time to play golf with some friends who happen to be staff members of Orem City where I worked for over a decade. We played golf at Sleepy Ridge golf course which is located just west of Geneva Road in Orem. The development of Sleepy Ridge occurred about 15 years ago when the city abandoned its plan to build a typical golf course on 140 acres it owned, and instead chose to work with developers in a public-private partnership to meander the course, providing opportunities for development of all types of housing from apartments to high-end homes. The city then entered into another partnership to create a clubhouse that is really a condominium unit, featuring clubhouse facilities, private offices and two reception centers that are jointly used for wedding receptions as well as corporate golfing events. This development has changed the area in Orem west of Geneva Road from what would be considered the wrong side of the tracks to a place people want to live, work and play. Local government transformed an entire community. 

Not all transformations affect communities. Some affect individuals and families. One such transformation was a decision by Chief Robby Russo to make Cottonwood Heights Police Department the first in the state to carry and dispense Naloxone. As you may know Naloxone (or “Nar-Can”) is a drug that can save a person suffering from an opioid overdose. This drug, when administered through a spray applied into the nose, has virtually no side effects and reverses the effects of the opioids. After officers were trained in the use of Naloxone and started carrying the drug, it was only three days later that two of our officers were the first to arrive at a call for an opioid overdose and brought one of our citizens back to consciousness from what very easily could have been a death. This is a case in which an individual was given another chance at life — much to the relief, I am sure, of their family. 

Why have I taken the time to talk about the importance of local government? Because it’s election time, and I hate local elections. OK, “hate” is a little strong, but they really do freak me out. As City Manager, this election could change three of my five bosses for the next four years. If you were me, wouldn’t that concern you just a little bit? But seriously, what your local government does is really important and you should take a little bit of time to become familiar with your candidates for mayor and council, and above all, vote.

I have worked with several mayors and dozens of council members since I wore that badge almost 40 years ago. And from my experience, there can be big differences in how councils operate. One particular city (not Cottonwood Heights) had a very contentious council, whose members really did not like each other. They had no ability to work together, nor did they want to. They hardly ever would meet in a work session to debate and try to deeply understand the issues, and would simply read the material and vote, usually with a 3-2 tally. Several times, the council would pass legislation only to have citizens organize a referendum and have the ordinance or budget item overturned.  

Our current Mayor and City Council are completely the opposite. They truly like each other and meet about 18 hours every month in work/study sessions, and spend hours studying every issue before taking a vote. A good example involves a proposed ordinance concerning the ability to legally have an accessory dwelling unit (usually a basement apartment) in your home. This is a very contentious subject. If the voting goes one way, strict enforcement could force many people who live in these units to lose their home, and landlords to lose additional income. On the other hand, many do not want the additional units in their neighborhoods. Both sides have a good point. Many will see only the public input from the formal meeting and the final vote, which may be unanimous, but few will know the countless hours the council has debated, argued and compromised to get the appropriate outcome. This occurs over and over and over again as the council thoughtfully weighs various issues affecting the city. This election year, two of our districts are getting new council members and the entire city is voting on a new mayor. The candidates range from some who have a very long list of service in which they have contributed their time and efforts to the city to some I had never heard of before they filed for election. Some of the candidates like the way the city is headed and some appear to want to disrupt the direction the council is taking the city. Despite the varying approaches, they all seem interested in making this great community even greater.  

This is a crucial time for our city. There are a lot of things we need to get right in the near future such as development of the gravel pit, redevelopment of Fort Union Boulevard, keeping our neighborhoods great and making sure our infrastructure is maintained properly. Decisions made in the next few years will transform Cottonwood Heights for many years to come. So please look into the candidates’ platforms and backgrounds. Do a little research, and for heaven’s sake, vote. You need a great city and I need some great bosses.