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A ‘strong mayor’ in West Jordan?

Feb 01, 2017 12:06PM ● Published by Tori LaRue

The West Jordan City Council passed a resolution proposing a change of government to the council-mayor form. Residents will vote on the matter during the 2017 election. (West Jordan City)

By Tori La Rue | tori@mycityjournals.com

 West Jordan residents could allow future mayors more say in day-to-day city operations if a measure passes on the 2017 ballot.

In West Jordan’s current form of government—the council-manager form—the mayor acts as the chairman of the city council, the city’s legislative branch, while the city manager, an appointed official, operates the daily administrative city functions, acting as the chief executive officer.

“The mayor is the only one authorized to sign any obligation to the city—financial or otherwise, so that is a different function than other council members, but I have no administrative duties over city employees. It creates confusion for staff sometimes,” West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe said about the current government form. “The mayor is also the only one in state law to speak on behalf of the city, but I am not the CEO of the city.”

Changing the government to a council-mayor form of government, sometimes referred to as a “strong mayor” form of government, means the mayor would leave the legislative branch to become the head of the city’s executive branch. In addition to taking over the city manager’s responsibilities, the mayor would have power to appoint administrative department heads with approval of the city council and veto ordinances passed by the city council subject to the council’s ability to override.

In a 4-3 vote on Jan. 25, the council approved a resolution to put a proposed change to the council-mayor form of government on the November ballot, with councilmen Zach Jacob, Chris McConnehey and Chad Nichols dissenting.

“The question is: should we permit the citizens to choose their form of government—stay with what we have or choose a different form of government?” asked Councilman Dirk Burton, who brought the resolution draft before the city council. “I desire to let the public have the choice.”

Jacob and McConnehey both agreed that the public should choose their form of government but argued that Burton’s resolution was an inadequate way to let the public decide because of its narrow scope.

“You are limiting their choice to only two (governments)—the one we have or the one you are proposing. There are several others that are on the books that they could choose from,” Jacob said. “Let’s let them have all of the choices and not just make the first half of the choice for them.”

Jacob suggested creating a West Jordan advisory committee to study the pros and cons of each of Utah’s forms of municipal government and present to the council. Both Jacob and McConnehey said they’d like to host town hall meetings for residents to express opinions before generating a ballot question.

Nichols vehemently opposed the resolution, citing increased cost and unequal distribution of power as reasons to avoid the council-mayor form. His biggest concern, however, was West Jordan’s inability to come back to the council-manager form after adopting a new governmental system, he said.

Although the council-manager form of government is the most popular government form in cities throughout the United States, according to the National League of Cities and Towns, it was removed from state law in 2008 and is no longer an option for Utah cities. Cities, like West Jordan, that were run under the government form in 2008 are permitted to continue the practice, but once these cities leave the council-manager form, they cannot come back unless changes are made to state law.

“To me, it’s not a choice (to switch our system) if you can never come back,” Nichols said. “If we want a real choice, let’s get the state legislature to put our form of government back on the books as a viable form that cities can change to. Our current form of government is an effective form of government.”

Rolfe, Burton, and councilmen Alan Anderson and Jeff Haaga voted in favor of the resolution despite the concerns of McConnehey, Jacob and Nichols. Haaga said residents had recently given him feedback that they’d like to see a “strong mayor” form of government and Anderson said the council couldn’t go wrong by posing the question to the public.

Local cities with a council-mayor form of government include Salt Lake City, Sandy and Murray. The only cities grandfathered into the council-manager form of government in Salt Lake County as of 2013 were Cottonwood Heights, Holladay, West Valley and West Jordan, according to the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

This is not the first time a change of government conversation has surfaced during city council meetings. Last year a similar ballot proposal was in question mid-year, but a majority of council members went against the motion, citing, among other reasons, that there would be too much of a time crunch to get the measure on the ballot and help educate residents on the matter.

The council will be taking resident input on adding the proposal to the ballot at two city council meetings—suggested to be held on Feb. 22 and March 8. Updated information about the public hearings will be posted on wjordan.com.

After seeking resident input, the city council has the option to reconsider putting the government form change on the ballot, so the vote on Jan. 26 does not guarantee residents will vote on the government form this November, according to city attorney David Brickey. If the council members do not change the resolution within 60 days, however, residents can expect the following yes or no question on their election ballot this year: “Shall the City of West Jordan, Utah change its form of government to the Council-Mayor Form, with a seven-member Council?”

The 2017 election is a mayoral election year. Brickey said the city was still gathering information as of Jan. 26, the West Jordan Journal’s print deadline, and creating a timeline for how the governmental transition would work should the item pass. The Journal will post more information as it becomes available at westjordanjournal.com. 

Today, News City of West Jordan council-mayor council-manager form of government
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