I get tired of turning on the news every night and seeing negative things about West Valley. I would really like to see the city change its image, and I think they can do that. … I definitely think leadership is a big part of that. —West Valley City resident Nita Kelly

WEST VALLEY CITY — Voters in West Valley City advanced Ron Bigelow in the race for mayor Tuesday as Utah's second largest city struggles to move past a year of scandal and controversy.

But with the vote too close to call, it's not clear who Bigelow will be running against.

With all districts reporting Tuesday, only 35 votes separated local business owner Karen Lang and City Councilman Don Christensen in the race for the second spot on the ballot this November. That ballot won't be set for another two weeks, pending an official canvass by the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office.

Both Bigelow and Christensen ran on promises of improving the city's troubled police force.

The department is still nursing a black eye after revelations of procedural violations in the department's now defunct Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, dismissal of more than 120 drug-related cases, the unresolved mystery of Susan Cox Powell's disappearance and the officer-involved shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard.

Residents took to the polls five days after Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced two West Valley officers were not justified when they pulled the trigger and killed Willard last November.

Outgoing Mayor Mike Winder announced in May he would not seek a second term, citing the need to work full time and provide for his family.

Winder stirred up a controversy of his own a year into his term when he assumed a fictitious identity in order to contribute articles about West Valley City to local media outlets, including the Deseret News, under the name Richard Burwash.

West Valley City resident Nita Kelly said she almost forgot about Tuesday's primary election, but when she saw a reminder online, she hurried to cast her vote at the city library.

Kelly moved to West Valley four years ago and said she's been ready for a change in government ever since the Burwash incident, which she called unethical and misrepresentative. She's also been concerned about police department.

"I get tired of turning on the news every night and seeing negative things about West Valley," Kelly said. "I would really like to see the city change its image, and I think they can do that. … I definitely think leadership is a big part of that."

Kelly said she hopes the new mayor will increase oversight in the police department, focusing on properly training officers.

Bigelow, a recently retired CPA, led in the primary with 33 percent of the vote. He listed improving West Valley's police department as one of his first priorities, along with not raising taxes and financial commitments, creating a friendly environment for residents and making local government more open and responsive.

Bigelow said Tuesday night he was pleased with his small lead, but with the polls split so closely between the top three vote-getters, the race to November will be much tighter than the 2009 election when Winder won with 75 percent of the vote.

He also spoke about the trust voters place in their elected leaders and the concerns he has heard as he has campaigned — specifically about the police department.

"As I've gone to thousands of doors and talked to people, I will tell you (the police department) is a big concern," Bigelow said. "It's two part: How do we solve the problem of those who have done things that they shouldn't have? And how do we protect those good officers who can perform their job?"

Bigelow worked for two years as the state budget director under Gov. Gary Herbert and represented West Valley in the Utah House of Representatives for 16 years.

Lang said beautifying the area and straightening out building standards would be priorities if she took office. Lang worked with the city's tree committee for 15 years and was on the Planning Commission for 10 years.

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Christensen left his at-large seat after one term in hopes of improving transparency and accountability for the city's government and police force, recruiting businesses to the area to create jobs and using volunteers to foster clean, safe neighborhoods.

Christensen worked as an educator and administrator in the Granite School District and served 12 years as an elected member of Utah State Board of Education.

Lars Nordfelt and Phil Conder will campaign to take Christensen's seat, taking 47 percent and 33 percent of the vote, respectively. Joe Garcia was eliminated in Tuesday's primary.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

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