WEST VALLEY CITY — As West Valley City tries to recover from some well-publicized, self-inflicted controversy and mistakes, it has the opportunity to reset the course of its relatively brief history.
Several serious blunders, especially the accusations of police corruption the past few months, have given Utah's second largest city a black eye. The missteps have caused some residents to lose confidence in those who have sworn to protect and serve. Critics say the city lacks strong leadership.
"I finally gave up and moved out," said Bill Barton, a former longtime West Valley resident who represented the city in the state Senate for 12 years through the 1980s.
But the city's more than 130,000 remaining residents might be thinking about what they want in a municipal government. The door appears open to consider changes to how West Valley City is governed.
Barton's issues with the community where he still serves on the historical society and has a builder supply business go beyond the most recent events. But he said the west-side city has always been sensitive about its image dating back to the early days of its existence, which wasn't that long ago.
"It leads them to do a lot of things they shouldn't be doing," said Barton, who moved to West Jordan a year ago.
The Neighborhood Narcotics Unit came under fire for shoddy police work, prompting Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to throw out 124 drug cases. Gill has described the situation as "chaos."
"Obviously, that's a blow to the image of the city," said Mayor Mike Winder, who announced last week he won't seek re-election this fall.
Police have also faced criticism for how they handled the disappearance of Susan Powell. Officials announced last week that leads in the case have dried up and their 3 ½-year search is over.
Two years ago, Winder himself made headlines for all the wrong reasons, admitting he used the name Richard Burwash to write several news stories about the city that were published in the Deseret News and Oquirrh Times.
Winder said his reason for not seeking a second term is financial — he can't make a living while fulfilling the demanding role of what is supposed to be a part-time elected position. He noted that at $35,000 a year, he earns about a third of what the mayors in Salt Lake, Provo and Sandy make. The difference is those mayors serve full time.
In fact, four of Utah's seven largest cities (Ogden is the other one) have full-time mayors. West Jordan, the state's fourth biggest city, intends to make it a full-time job and boost the pay accordingly.
Strong mayor-council governments are set much like state or federal government where the mayor serves as the chief executive, while the council acts as the legislative branch.
In a council-manager structure, the mayor and city council make up what would be a board of directors that hires a CEO to run day-to-day operations. City department heads report to the city manager rather than the mayor or council.
West Valley City has considered moving to the strong mayor-council system over the years.
"We are growing. Perhaps it ought to be looked at again," said Margaret K. Peterson, who served on the City Council for 17 years and is now running for mayor.
Still young, the city had some fits and starts going back to the first failed incorporation vote in 1978. Incorporation passed two years later but was followed by a disincorporation movement. That effort was defeated, and the once-rural areas known as Granger and Hunter became West Valley City.
During the past 33 years, the city has swelled to become the second largest in the state.
"We have complex issues. We have all those big city problems," said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, a Granger High School graduate who has lived in the same house the past 40 years.
One of the first orders of business in 1980 was to establish a municipal government to guide the city as it evolved. As member of the committee tasked with that responsibility, Barton argued for a city manager to run the day-to-day operations.
Now, he says he favors a full-time mayor because it makes the position more accountable to voters and creates checks and balances between a mayor and city council.
Winder said there are pros and cons to both forms of government. A city manager provides stability, while there's value in having department heads directly accountable to an elected official, he said.
In the situation with the police narcotics unit, Winder said it's hard to say whether things would have been different.
"You would have updates and information coming across your desk sooner, certainly. But the city manager clearly began to take actions as soon as he knew of the some of the improprieties as well," he said.
But philosophical questions about how to run the city in the future will have to wait. Winder has more pressing concerns, including the search for a permanent police chief to "set a new direction" for the department. He also wants to keep economic development "rocking and rolling" in the city during his last seven months in office.
"It will be a sprint to the finish," he said.
Like Winder, Mayne remains optimistic about West Valley's future.
"We're proud West Valley citizens. We are concerned. We understand the ramifications of these issues," she said. "We want closure and we want to have transparency and we want to move on."
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