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.”
The 65-year-old Bigelow was happily retired last spring and had no plans to run (or walk) for office. He was doing volunteer work in the community and doting on grandchildren. Politics was not part of his plan for retirement, but it wasn’t part of his plan when he went to work decades ago, either.
After graduating from Granger High, he accepted a one-year academic scholarship to BYU. His studies were interrupted by a two-year mission in Mexico for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a three-year hitch in the Air Force. After transferring to the University of Utah and earning an accounting degree, he worked nearly 29 years for the LDS Church as manager of finance for the missionary department.
Over the years, he supported various candidates in their campaigns by posting signs or passing out fliers, and eventually he served as a delegate and a voting precinct chairman. He became more directly involved when he grew dissatisfied with his own representative in the Legislature, Allan Rushton. Bigelow encouraged others to run against Rushton, but they couldn’t oust him and eventually no one wanted to oppose him. Bigelow, a Republican, accepted the challenge himself and won.
“It surprised a lot of people that I won,” says Bigelow, who served 16 years in the Legislature.
A month after winning a ninth term, he was hired away by Gov. Gary Herbert to be executive director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. He retired from his job with the LDS Church and worked for the governor for two years before retiring in 2012. For a year, he did volunteer work in the community, spent more time with his wife, Charlene, and tutored a grandson. Then people in the community asked him to run for mayor.
“I laughed and said no without even a thought,” he says. “I had been in elected office. I didn’t think there was anything I needed to do personally, and I was retired. I didn’t need another job.”
But people persisted and, after consulting his wife and friends, he agreed.
“A lot of it centered on the challenge of the Police Department,” he says. “I felt I could lend some credibility to what might happen there because I had not been part of the city. If people are going to fix the problem, but it’s the people who were there when the problem existed, people would still have questions. They did the right thing by hiring a new chief, but that has been an uphill battle because of who chose him. Some still don’t believe there is a problem, and some believe our whole Police Department is bad. The truth is somewhere between.”
Bigelow realizes his role in bringing change is limited by the necessity of consensus. In West Valley’s council-manager form of government, the city manager runs the city. The mayor — a part-time position that pays just $35,000 annually — serves as chairman of the City Council and as ceremonial head of the city. He has one vote, like other council members.
“If I want to get something done, I can’t do it unilaterally,” he says. “I’d have to convince the others. That’s good. When you have multiple people making decisions, you’ll have better solutions. It’s not as if one person has all the good ideas.”
Bigelow would seem to be just the man to rebuild trust in government. After all, he was once entrusted with the finances of the state and a worldwide church. While serving in the Legislature he was chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, giving him significant discretion in the budget and the allocation of funds to various programs. As such, he advocated and practiced transparency. He discovered, for instance, that actual costs were buried in bills, many of which had other items and costs hidden in them. He created a system that made those costs easy to find and compare.
“I had trouble myself finding the numbers,” he says. “Why do you have financial information? You have to help people understand.”
He hopes to do the same thing again as West Valley City’s new mayor.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org