Do city elections matter? Are the voices of the people really heard? We are about to find out.
On Jan. 3, 2012, three council members were sworn in to the Salt Lake City government, two new and one re-elected. All three want a bottom-up government that involves citizens in having a say in the direction of their city. Furthermore, they want to reaffirm that the seven-member city council is a separate and equal branch of city government, responsible for setting overall policy direction for the city, and with oversight responsibility.
They noted that, in the past, much of the legislation has originated from the mayor's office, and that seems to be backwards. The council is responsible for setting policy for the city. "The voice of the council is one that is critical. We are the most closely connected to our neighborhoods," according to one council member.
Greater citizen participation in molding the future of their neighborhoods is foremost to these recently elected members. The new council members walked their districts, listened to their constituents' concerns and now want to make those concerns part of the city's priorities. Among them is to improve public safety, municipal services, street lighting, streets and aging infrastructure — the nuts and bolts.
As one new council member said, "We are rebuilding our city roads at a rate of once every 600 years. This isn't sustainable, and it's not progressive. We need to do better." They see this as a great opportunity to work together with the mayor to review " … and adapt our capital improvement budget to focus on taking care of what we have."
There may be some differences, however, between the old council members, the new members and the mayor regarding policy-making function. Before the arrival of the new council members, the focus was on economic development, the environment, arts/culture and facilities, not unlike the mayor's agenda. On Jan. 24, just days after the swearing in of the newly elected members, the council held a retreat to review and adopt the council's "philosophy statements" developed in September 2011. It was general and reflected the mayor's agenda.
The rush to adopt the "philosophy statement" seems to have limited the new members' ability to include the concerns of the constituents in their three districts. It could have been an opportunity for the incumbent council members to welcome issues and solutions from the new members as part of renewing the council's mission.
The mayor had presented the council with a 17-page document of his agenda for the next four years. According to his spokesperson, the mayor will be presenting specific goals in February. In the meantime, the council members should take the time to consider the concerns of their constituents in renewing policies to implement along with the mayor's priorities. This is consistent with the equal roles between the two branches of city government. More important, it will allow the concerns of each district's citizens to be heard.
The mayor and council ought to create a vision for the city of what they want the city to become with a clear set of goals, objectives and time frames for them to be accomplished. The council can then exercise its oversight responsibility to monitor their progress and completion. City taxpayers have a right to see how efficiently and effectively their government is serving them. This allows for the voices and concerns of taxpayers to be heard and for city government to be accountable to them.
As the state's capital city, the council and mayor can set an example of creating a bottom-up government that involves citizens in creating the destiny of their city.
A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.