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The City Journals

New government, new construction and a note about the budget

Jan 05, 2021 02:53PM ● By Erin Dixon

In January 2020, West Jordan City changed its form of government. (photo/Erin Dixon)

By Erin Dixon| [email protected]

West Jordan 2021 in three topics: new government, filling in the last available land in the valley, and a note on the budget.

New Government

Before the beginning of 2020, West Jordan city operated with a manager-council. The head was a Chief Executive Officer hired by the council. It was this person’s responsibility to direct city staff and implement decisions made by the council. The mayor was only the head of the council. 

Now, West Jordan has a mayor-council form of government, also known as a strong mayor form.  The mayor is now the head of the city and is no longer part of the council. The council makes the decisions separately and the mayor is responsible to have staff carry out those decisions made. 

Dirk Burton is the first strong mayor and took office this January.

Burton previously served on the city council from 2016 to 2019 under the manager-council form of government. said he didn’t know what was coming his way.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I knew it would be a learning curve all the way around. We did make a couple of boo-boos here and there.”  

Burton was in favor of the strong mayor form of government even before he took office.

“I always believed the top person running the city should be an elected official,” Burton said. “I think it’s better for the residents.” 

After the form of government was voted in, the council and legal team spent the past two years combing code and adjusting statements and responsibilities to remove the CEO and establish the mayor as the new head of the city.

“We’re still finding things in code that don’t apply to the change in form of government so we clean those up,” Burton said. 

Councilmember Kayleen Whitelock has been on the council since 2018 and has experience interacting with both forms of government. 

“We have almost had a full year of the new form,” Whitelock said. “Just as I felt prior, the form is not nearly as important as the people filling the seats.” 

Changing form did more than switch around who was in charge, however. 

“I also shared my concern [beforehand] it would cost more, and it does,” Whitelock said. “The council now has two full-time employees, and in my opinion, we also need our own council—possibly just a contract attorney whom we can consult when needed.” 

With a strong mayor, do residents see anything different? 

“The mayor has the ability to adjust some of the scheduling,” Burton said. “Thirty-eight hundred West, that road was scheduled to be repaved next year. I said move it down the schedule and get it taken care of now so we can show the residents we’re taking care of them. In the past, a resident would have to talk with a city manager. How often did that happen?” 

In contrast, Whitelock is unsure a strong mayor has as much control as residents may want.

“I also believe both the current mayor and others thought with a citizen whom the populace chose that individual could bring immediate results to their issues,” Whitelock said. “Even with our current form, there are processes and finances that dictate what can be done.”

Resident Brandy Wright has interacted with the new form and mayor this year and had her own thoughts to share.  

“I like and support the new form of government,” Wright said. “I am not impressed with the leadership of the mayor in general. My interactions have been that he likes to be the good guy, shake hands and do photo ops but leaves the hard stuff to his staff (layoff process is one example of this).”  

More details about how the change of government came about see this article: https://www.westjordanjournal.com/2020/01/06/294213/a-new-face-for-west-jordan

Building and building and building

West Jordan has some of the last bare, undeveloped land in the valley. Layne Western, West Jordan building official, reported in November on what is going on that land. 

Most of the space is being covered by non-residential space such as office and industrial. 

In 2020, 3.4 million square feet of non-residential land was constructed, which blew the previous building record, 1.1 million square feet in 2006, out of the water by three times. Over the past six years, “non-residential building square feet—we typically issue around 200,000-600,000 square feet of nonresidential buildings per year,” Western said. 

The largest space built this year was an Amazon building covering 1.5 million square feet.

And next year? “In our first quarter (for 2021), we’ve already issued permits for building 675,000 square feet,” Western said. 

Some notable installments are an Aligned Energy expansion, at 240,000 square feet; Parasol Warehouse that will manufacture vitamins, at 187,000 square feet; and Rush Funplex, at 74,000 square feet.

Legislation and lobbying for the cities interests 

West Jordan City contracts with a lobbyist, Lincoln Shurtz from Legislative Insight. In November, along with the mayor, Shurtz presented to the council what he saw as opportunities for West Jordan to be heard. He also gathered ideas from council members about what they would like to see happen on capitol hill during the legislative session in January. 

Because of the pandemic, the state capitol building will not be as open to the public in person as usual. 

“I really do think for us, there is going to be a unique opportunity for access because the public won’t be able to be there in such a robust fashion,” Shurtz said. “I do think we will have opportunity to have a disproportionate impact on the legislature on some of the key priorities.” 

On the 2020 Utah State ballot was Amendment G, which allows the state to use income tax for Medicare, Medicaid and disability services, money that used to be exclusively for education. 

This amendment passed by a narrow margin of 54%.

Shurtz said that the passing of this amendment may be helpful for the city. “It will make our job for advocating for more infrastructure and money for local governments easier because it allows us access to a pot of funds that has previously been constitutionally protected for education,” he said. “It’s going to give the state far more options to figure out what the priorities are for the state.”

Development is in whose hands

Who will ultimately be responsible for the development of the remaining land in West Jordan?

As a professional lobbyist, Shurtz spends a lot of time with state leaders and legislators. “There have been far more conversations around regional planning than I have ever seen, which really just means ‘how can we take this away from cities and/or counties and give it to a regional authority?’” Shurtz said.  

Whitelock prefers land development decisions remain in the hands of the city, not outside authorities.

“I would like our state representatives to remember that we believe local government governs best,” Whitelock said. “I have a better opportunity to speak to residents and what they want in their community. Our city has the most undeveloped land, and we haven't told other cities how to develop their land, and we don’t think it’s justifiable to be told how to develop ours.”

Councilmember Kelvin Green suspects that part of the problem is a debate about who is truly in control.

“The reason why the development community wants regional development is because they only want to have to deal with five people not 15 cities,” Green said. “We have a whole ton of developers within the state legislature and are heavily pushing their own agenda.”   

If the city is concerned about who has the most influence over build-out, Shurtz confirms there is a way to retain some authority.

“One of the best defenses is a good offense,” Shurtz said. “We need to put a plan together so they know how we intend and what our master plan looks like for the undeveloped lands within our city.”  

Budget Update

When Gov. Gary Herbert shut down much of the state businesses in March because of the pandemic, West Jordan leaders prepared for a drop in sales tax revenue. Some employees at the city were laid off, hiring was frozen, and the city prepared to borrow from its own General Fund. Fortunately, residents continued purchasing groceries and home improvement supplies, which tempered the loss. 

“Fortunately, it was a lot higher than our worst-case scenario was,” Burton said. “It wasn’t the same as what we thought it would be [before the pandemic], but we won’t have to pull as much from our rainy-day fund.”