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West Jordan Journal

A new face for West Jordan

Jan 06, 2020 11:22AM ● By Erin Dixon

The outside is the same, but starting Jan 2020, the inside workings will never be the same. (Erin Dixon/City Journals)

By Erin Dixon | [email protected]

Dirk Burton unseated Mayor Jim Riding with 589 votes. But, the face in the lead chair is not the only new thing for City Hall in 2020.

Burton is the first strong mayor in West Jordan history. Until now, West Jordan had a city manager that implemented the decisions of the city council (manager/council form), while the mayor was the chair and collective voice of the city council. 

With the new strong mayor, the city will no longer have a city manager, and the mayor will no longer be part of the council. The mayor is no longer part of the legislative decision making.

The city manager was previously responsible for implementing directions given by the council but also gave advice. Now that is the mayor's job. 

The new mayor will have someone to assist him in the managing of the city, but this position will report directly to the mayor, not the council. This position is the chief administrative officer (CAO) and will be Korban Lee, pending council approval. Lee previously worked with David Brickey as Assistant City Manager. 

“Korban Lee will be working under the direction of the mayor, while Mr. Brickey was working under the direction of the city council,” Burton said. “He had seven bosses essentially, while the CAO will have one boss.”

A new mayor ... again

For almost 40 years, West Jordan has had an unspoken tradition for residents to elect a new mayor each term. Some neighboring cities have kept the same mayor for over a decade.

Sandy City has the mayor/council form of government. Tom Dolan served as mayor for 24 years, 1994 to 2017. Midvale City has the manager/council form of government. JoAnn Seghini served as mayor for 19 years, 1998 to 2017.

West Jordan became a city in 1967 with Bruce G. Egbert as the first mayor. Since then only one mayor, Junius Burton, has been elected for more than one term.

Burton doesn’t know why the city does not keep mayors for long. 

“Isn’t that amazing?” Burton said. “I don’t have any thoughts about that. The good parts would be that we get a new face in there. The not good parts would be we’re not keeping continuity.” 

Lee worked in Sandy City with Dolan and briefly for Bradburn. 

“While I will miss the council-manager form of government I have grown accustomed to in West Jordan, I spent many years working in a city with a strong mayor,” Lee said. “Each system has its merits. I have seen the benefits of managerial longevity in city government. A lot can be done when there is a single, clear vision carried over a long period of time. I look forward to helping Mr. Burton carry out his vision and hope it results in greater long-term stability for West Jordan.”

Riding served as mayor for only two years because of the change of government that was voted for during the same election. A side effect of this decision is that Riding will still be paid for the remaining two years that he didn’t serve. The city council decided in 2017 that the mayoral candidates were running for four years and still deserved four years pay, whether they continued after the next election or not. 

Riding said, “I did say that [I wasn’t going to take it], but I am going to take it. In fact, I’ve had so many people tell me that it’s the right thing, I haven’t had anybody tell me not to.”

What brought the change

In 2017, the election proposal Proposition 10 read: “Shall the City of West Jordan, Utah, change its form of government to the Council-Mayor Form, with a seven-member Council?”

Voting results: 6,841 for, 6,778 against. Sixty-three votes changed the government of West Jordan. The eligible voting population at the time was over 70,000.

How will this change the day to day life for a resident? It won’t.

“Generally speaking, residents will likely not see a change in the day-to-day operation of the city — roadwork and infrastructure improvements will continue to be made, water will still be delivered to individual homes and public safety operations will be in place,” said Tauni Barker, communications officer for the city. 

Because the vote was so close, residents are split over whether the change will be positive or negative.

Resident Dennis Randal said, “A city manager is not accountable to the citizens. He might be a professional, but his career depends on keeping three to four council members happy. The mayor is elected by and responsible to the voters. He needs to keep a city happy. All cities hire professionals to support the city government. But the top of the pyramid should be there by the voice of the people.”

Resident Kenneth Ivie views the same situation differently. “This form of government was voted down twice and almost didn't make the cut last time,” he said. “Maybe if somewhere along the way [the mayors] would have actually listened to the managers instead of forcing them out, things could have worked. Now the city will be run by persons that may or may not have any experience.”

City leaders talked about the form change in the past. 

“The change in form of government has been a topic of discussion on and off since the city was formed,” Barker said. “While there have been several related initiatives, most failed to muster enough support to place the decision on the ballot. The question did make the 1989 ballot and was rejected by a small margin, very similar to the number of voters who approved the change in government two years ago.” 

The argument for retaining manager/council form was outlined in a voter pamphlet from West Jordan City in 1989:

“Experience, education, training and skills are necessary to manage our city through growth and change. Citizens should be concerned about electing a mayor who appears to be qualified but lacks financial or management skills. A mayor cannot be removed for being incompetent, only for criminal misconduct. Because the Manager can be removed at any time if his performance becomes unsatisfactory, he runs for office every day, not just once every four years.”

However, the mayor/council form has more checks and balances built in. From that same voter pamphlet, it reads: “The proposed Mayor/Council form of government will restore the basic constitutional principles of separation of powers. The Mayor will check and balance the City Council … The City Council will check and balance the power of the Mayor ... by being able to audit or investigate the conduct of any department or action of the Mayor; and having authority to override the Mayor's veto."

City managers in and out the door

Ivie referred to the frequent turnover in the city manager position. That position was even more volatile in West Jordan than the mayors. In the last 10 years, there have been six city managers: David Brickey, January 2018 to December 2019; Mark Palish, 2015 to 2017; Bryce Haderlie (Interim), 2014; Richard Davis, August 2011 to 2014; Melanie Briggs (Interim), 2011; and Tom Steele, February 2009 to March 2011.

In contrast, Midvale City (with manager/council form) has had one manager, Kane Loader, since 2006.

Riding has a guess why the turnover was so high. 

“The mayors at the time wanted to do the city manager’s job,” he said. “And so, the manager was trying to do his/her job so there was always a conflict so the best thing to do was for the mayor to get rid of the city manager.” 

While Burton has stated he plans to retain all of the senior staff aside from Brickey, it is not uncommon for department heads to voluntarily move on after a new mayor takes office. 

“I know there are others there that are thinking of retiring or finding another job because they’re afraid of what might happen with the city,” Riding said. 

Concerns for the future

David Church, a municipal attorney, addressed the mayoral candidates before the primary election this summer. 

“A significant problem with this form of government is when the mayor and council disagree on any particular issue, and in conflict, stagnate operations and progress,” Church said. “Sandy and South Salt Lake both have councils and mayors that are occasionally at odds, and in the case of South Salt Lake, it almost prevented a budget from being approved. I have to keep reminding the mayors that their first duty in the code is carry out the policy adopted by the council, not torpedo it. Mayors should understand that you win your fight at the council level, and if you lose it, you still have to carry them out.”

Burton is aware of this possibility and has made efforts to maintain professionalism before any conflicts start. 

“The thing I’ve already started to do is have a good relationship with the council,” he said. “I’ve already reached out to them, gotten their opinions on things. We can disagree on things, but the way we handle them, that’s important. And we keep in mind that what we think we’re doing is best for the city and not let personal vendetta get in the way.”