Cities and towns across Utah, from Big Water to Smithfield, are holding primary elections August 13th, narrowing the field of candidates for mayor and city council positions. There’s one town in Sanpete County where the mayoral primary has drawn intense interest this year.
About a hundred people gathered in the Wasatch Academy gymnasium in Mount Pleasant for a ‘Meet the Candidates’ night on July 31st. It was another indication of the intense interest in this year’s municipal election – something this town of 28-hundred hasn’t always shown in the past.
Two years ago, Jeff McDonald joined the five-member city council because he was the only candidate in the race.
“I signed up as a write-in because I had missed the deadline for a regular candidate," McDonald told KUER in an interview on Mount Pleasant's Main Street. "And I just decided I would give it my best shot and see if I could win even as a write-in. And then not long after I had signed up, Mr. Reed Thomas stepped down and nobody else had signed up so I was able to get on city council without going through an election.”
McDonald immediately began trying to reshape city government with ideas others on the council seemed unwilling to hear. He challenged what would normally have been routine city spending. He demanded investigations of other elected officials. Now he’s decided to run for mayor, hoping that office will give him a better opportunity to get his agenda considered.
But a couple of city staffers got so frustrated with McDonald they sent an e-mail complaining about him to the publisher of the Sanpete Messenger, a weekly newspaper based in Manti.
On April 24th, publisher Suzanne Dean responded with an opinion column urging more candidates to run for office and more voters to get involved.
“I really could never have imagined the uproar that the column would cause," Dean says. "My basic point was that if people – if nobody – if middle-of-the-road pillars of the community do not stand up and run for local office, you’re going to be left with people like McDonald who are kind of out there on what I would view to be the edge. And I called on people to stand up and run for office.”
The column criticized what Dean called McDonald’s “obstructionism.”
That's something McDonald says makes no sense. "To me, an obstructionist stops things. I haven’t been able to stop anything. I’ve been a no vote on some issues, but every single thing they have wanted to get through has got through because I’ve been the only no vote if that’s happened.”
Dean’s column touched off a furious debate in the community. The newspaper printed a lengthy response from McDonald, dozens of letters from both supporters and detractors. And when the filing deadline arrived, eleven candidates had declared their intention to run for office in Mount Pleasant, three for mayor and eight for two positions on the city council.
Dan Simons, a former city council member, is running for mayor. He’s retiring from his job as postmaster in Spring City and he says he’ll be able to devote his full time to what is normally a part-time job.
Dave Blackham is also running for mayor. He’s a former city council member and the owner of the Skyline Pharmacy right in the center of town. He says others in city government have found McDonald difficult to work with.
“It’s like this," Blackham tells KUER. "If you worked, let’s say in your office, and you have someone that’s hired that you cannot fire. And everything that is done, he challenges. Everything that is done, he questions . . . How long before your entire office pulls away from that person?”
McDonald, though, is not alone – some of the candidates running for the city council agree with his agenda, which may have as much to do with national politics as local issues. Vern Akauola believes the city has some of the same problems as the federal government.
“One of my main reasons for running is, right now I feel our country is headed in the wrong direction," Akauola told the crowd at the candidate forum. "We’re loaded with debt. And I think that a lot of the problems are, as some of the candidates have stated, for grants and things, grants have not been the answer."
Mount Pleasant has received millions of dollars in grants from federal and state government as well as private donors in recent years, using them for everything from renovating city hall to building a rodeo arena. Many of the applications were engineered by city council member Monte Bona, who’s not up for re-election this time. He says local tax revenue doesn’t come close to addressing the city’s needs.
“I think the reality will set in," Bona says, "and they’ll realize the money has to come from somewhere, especially with this aging infrastructure that’s got to be addressed. And they’ll have to sit down and figure out how to do it.”
The city’s nuisance ordinance may be as much an issue for candidates in Mount Pleasant as any dispute over spending. A lot of people got mad a few years ago when letters went out from the city to some property owners telling them to clean up junk cars and mow the weeds. Mayoral candidate Jeff McDonald says they’ve asked him to push for a change.
He says, “I tried to get ‘em to review this ordinance and re-look at it and see if we can’t make it a little more community friendly instead of so, don’t know the right word, really hard-nosed ordinance for a country community.”
McDonald’s opponent, Dave Blackham, can see the argument from those who think the city is infringing on private property rights. But he says there’s more to it.
“When some of that goes beyond and you have a situation where it compromises public safety, you can’t allow that," Blackham says. "With respect to other people’s property and potential for fires, take care of the weeds and that kind of thing. So you gotta strike a balance.”
Whatever the motivations of those running for office in Mount Pleasant this year, it’s clear no one will win by default. Suzanne Dean, the publisher of the Sanpete Messenger, won’t take all the credit for the full slate of candidates. But she does think her paper made a difference.
“A community newspaper does have some influence, especially if there’s a situation people aren’t informed about," Dean muses. "I think the brouhaha growing out of my original Publisher’s Perspective did motivate some people to get involved, people across the opinion spectrum.”
But the job takes a toll. After 12 years publishing this 120-year-old newspaper, Dean says she’s looking for an opportunity to retire.
Update: Results from the municipal primary election in Mt. Pleasant August 13, 2013:
David Blackham 394
Jeff McDonald 193
Dan Simons 110
Kevin Stallings 402
Justin Atkinson 307
Wayne Lee 223
Jon Schuhmann 121
Vern Akauola 99
Corey Shock 97
Joe Ison 64
Michael Blaine Sumsion 12
Source: Mt. Pleasant City Recorder