West Jordan leaders seek to keep City Hall civil in 2016
WEST JORDAN — "It's been a fiasco, the whole year. We just want a community where people aren't ashamed to say, 'I live in West Jordan.'"
Those were the words of Kim Ratcliffe, who has lived in West Jordan for 50 years and has watched the city's government earn a nasty reputation for drama.
Infighting, lawsuits, and accusations of hostility and harassment have plagued West Jordan City Hall for the past several years. Now, city leaders hope to scrub the slate clean.
Mayor Kim Rolfe said he's optimistic West Jordan will turn over a new leaf for 2016, with two newly sworn-in City Council members — Dirk Burton and Zach Jacob — and a recently appointed city manager, Mark Palesh.
"I believe the past is behind us now," Rolfe said. "We're turning a corner. Since 2008, I'm the most positive I've been for the future of West Jordan."
West Jordan's first City Council meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, and the city's annual strategic planning meetings are set for Jan. 21-22.
Ratcliffe said time will tell whether city leaders will get along in the coming months, but he, like the mayor, is optimistic.
"I'm hoping with new leadership that will start to happen," Ratcliffe said. "We need to start being the city we want to be. We need to pull up our pants and get going to do what we need to do."
The disorder within West Jordan City Hall dates back several years.
In August 2014, ex-City Manager Richard Davis resigned abruptly without explanation. His resignation followed a lawsuit filed by city court clerk supervisor Shelley Thomas, accusing city officials of civil rights violations, negligence, conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Davis was named in Thomas' lawsuit, along with other city officials. But in March, the lawsuit was settled after West Jordan agreed to pay Thomas $75,000, without admitting fault.
Then in April, ex-city attorney Jeff Robinson, who was also named in Thomas' lawsuit, was escorted from his office and placed on administrative leave. In June, he resigned.
Five months later, Robinson filed a notice of claim of a lawsuit against West Jordan, alleging wrongful termination, defamation, conspiracy and a number of other legal claims.
Robinson claimed that Rolfe and City Councilman Jeff Haaga "entered into a conspiracy" to drive Robinson, Davis and former assistant attorney Stuart Williams from office in retaliation for investigating and seeking criminal charges against West Jordan Justice Court Judge Ronald Kunz.
Kunz was charged with misdemeanor criminal misconduct in 2012 for releasing private criminal history records, but was acquitted in 2013 after evidence against him was ruled to have been illegally obtained.
Robinson's notice of claim was filed in October, but no lawsuit has been since been filed.
In the meantime, a power struggle emerged between the City Council and the mayor after former City Councilman Ben Southworth suggested reducing the mayor's job to part time and slashing his salary to $10,000 per year. Southworth did not seek re-election.
Rolfe then filed a lawsuit in August for a restraining order to prevent the City Council from making changes to his authority. A Salt Lake City court rejected the claim.
Last fall, drama would rear its head again among members of the City Council. Personal emails belonging to City Councilwoman Sophie Rice — and containing allegations of sexual harassment from the mayor — were released in an email sent from Haaga to all city staff and obtained by the Deseret News in October.
Rice said she never intended for the accusations to go public, and suspected that Haaga sent the email on purpose, although Haaga claimed it was an accident.
The mayor has since denied all of Rice's accusations. Investigations into Rice's claims are still ongoing, Blake Nakamura, chief deputy Salt Lake County district attorney, confirmed Friday.
A month after Rice's accusations surfaced, Haaga filed notice of claim against City Council members and city staff, claiming conspiracy to interfere with his right to free speech, intentional infliction of emotional distress, a pattern of misconduct and malicious harassment.
But Haaga withdrew his notice of claim in December, saying at a City Council meeting that he would "never sue" West Jordan.
Since Haaga withdrew his notice of claim, dramatic events at City Hall seem to have settled down.
"Things have been fairly quiet, which is good," Rice said of 2016 thus far. "I believe we're on our way, but there's still a long way to go. I would like to see some progress in terms of doing the work of the people rather than personal attack and negative relationship issues."
She said the city needs to "balance its separation of powers" and make sure each leader "stays in their respective lanes."
"I think if we can do that, we'll be set to have a very productive year," Rice said.
Despite the ongoing investigation into Rice's allegations and the lingering notice of claim from Robinson, the mayor said he believes the city has already "moved past everything."
"I'm really excited to work with the new council members," Rolfe said. "I've met with them, and I know they're going to be very active. They have some really good ideas."
Jacob and Burton said they hope to focus their attention on city matters and avoid unprofessional conflict.
"What I hope to bring is the willingness to sit down with anybody no matter which side of an issue you may be on to understand somebody's viewpoint instead of engage in a battle," Jacob said.
Burton, who voters selected in November to replace one-term incumbent Judy Hansen, said it's unfortunate that the drama within West Jordan City Hall "distracted" from achievements and progress on important projects.
"West Jordan should have a good image," he said. "It takes a long time to build a good image, but just a short period of time to break it down."
Highlights in 2015 included the opening of a new fire station, improving snow removal, and taking West Jordan off the Utah Legislature's list of possible sites for relocation of the state prison, the mayor said.
"I'm optimistic we will work well together," Jacob said.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: KatieMcKellar1
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