Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
WEST VALLEY CITY — Ron Bigelow didn’t run for mayor of West Valley City. He walked.
Six days a week, for five months, he walked from door to door, one neighborhood at a time, seeking votes and taking the pulse of the city. He would start at 10 a.m., take a break in the afternoon, and then walk again until dark. He wore out two pairs of shoes. Water was leaking right through the soles.
Bigelow, who assumed his mayoral duties at the outset of the year, has spent the past couple of months digesting what thousands of people told him as he stood on porches and sat in living rooms.
“It was,” he says, “an education. They’d ask questions and tell me their concerns. I learned things I never would have heard sitting in an office.”
Among other things, what he heard was exactly what would be confirmed late in the year: West Valley City has issues, the most disturbing of which was the behavior and performance of the Police Department. In Bigelow’s door-to-door visits, people often expressed concerns about city finances and ordinance enforcement, but most of all, the police.
“I heard everything about the police — speeding tickets, interactions in neighborhoods, how they dealt with drug houses,” says Bigelow. “If you hear of one problem a couple of times, it’s one thing; but if you hear it 50 times, you start to say there are problems. You develop this picture you could never get any other way.”
What was equally disturbing to Bigelow was the response of politicians and city officials who were not forthright with the public about the problem. While serving as a state legislator he heard about problems with West Valley’s Police Department and passed it on to city leaders — and that was 10 years ago.
“They patronized me,” he said. “They said there were no problems.”
It wasn’t until fall 2013 that the city acknowledged it had a problem and then only because of a highly publicized drug case in which police shot and killed a young woman in her car — later ruled by the Salt Lake district attorney to be unjustified. By then, the police problem had mushroomed out of control. The investigation into the Police Department has revealed misconduct and incompetence so deep that nearly 100 cases were dismissed, the police chief resigned and the cop who killed the young woman was fired.
“Why did people lose confidence (in city leaders)?” says Bigelow. “Because things happened, and the way they found out about it was because of the media. They wonder why didn’t people in the Police Department and the city manager and the City Council bring this out? Even when they did, it was driven by outside sources.”
Bigelow wants a more responsive local government. He has called some of the people he met on his walking campaign and invited them to one-on-one meetings in his office to further explore their ideas and complaints. “I have received emailed suggestions from people and, oh, they are good!,” he says. “I’m going to share them with the City Council.”
He continues: “If a citizen calls and complains, it’s gold. It tells you what’s going on outside the city office. You investigate it and you keep track. If you keep getting calls, something’s not working. You listen. Many (citizens) said: ‘I don’t even call anymore. It doesn’t make a difference.’ That’s terrible.”
He applauds the actions of new Police Chief Lee Russo for being more forthright. “He found a problem so he decided to audit all of the cases,” Bigelow says. “He didn’t want other people to find more problems. He said he wanted to see it all to understand the problem so he could fix it. That builds trust.”
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