With one month to go before the city’s Nov. 7 municipal election, voters had the chance last week to hear directly from the candidates running for two open seats on the Moab City Council, and for mayor of Moab.
The Grand County League of Women Voters sponsored a public forum on Thursday, Oct. 5, that brought Moab City Council candidates Brian Ballard, Karen Guzman-Newton, Mike Duncan and Cassie Patterson to the Grand Center. Mayoral candidates Emily Niehaus and David Olsen also took to the stage at the nonpartisan event.
The candidates tackled a range of randomly chosen topics from a broader range of questions that each of them was allowed to review ahead of time. The Moab Sun News is highlighting their responses to some of the questions, which focused on everything from their impressions of the city’s general plan, to recent city council votes they supported and opposed.
Ballard – a former police officer who now owns Grand Valley Construction – has lived in Moab for about 37 years, and he said he has a great investment in the community where his children and grandchildren live.
“I love my community, and I believe that we have the greatest city in the world,” he said.
During the time that he’s lived in Moab, Ballard noted that the city has adopted many general plans, and he believes that the latest one should be less general and more specific about its goals. In particular, he said, the city should take more active steps toward issues such as housing and economic diversification.
Right now, he said, the city’s revenue eggs are in one basket, and officials should spend more time promoting economic diversification to broaden revenue streams beyond tourism.
“Don’t plan on it (tourism) lasting forever,” he said. “The way our current budget is, we’re kind of planning on that.”
In terms of the city’s current spending patterns, Ballard said he believes that officials have been “very responsible” in many ways.
“But I do feel like they’ve been irresponsible in the way of hiring and positions that are very – I feel like – not needed,” he said.
The city should be focusing on its “failing” infrastructure, such as sidewalks that have never been installed, or roads, “ancient” sewer lines and a city public works building that needs to be replaced, he said. In addition, he said, it needs to save the money that it has in a rainy-day fund.
Ballard said he knows that the process of hiring and firing city personnel is not an easy one, but he believes that some of the recent additions and terminations caused “quite a bit” of grief for the city.
“I definitely don’t agree with some of the things that took place there,” he said. “I don’t feel like they were looking after our city; I don’t feel like they were doing things that were proper.”
Guzman-Newton, who co-owns Poison Spider Bicycles with her husband, said her top priorities include better communications between the city and schools; housing for people who “make Moab work”; and efforts to keep residential neighborhoods safe and quiet.
She has lived in Moab for more than 20 years, and she said that the community is at a critical time in its growth: It needs to hire the most qualified and committed individuals who can bring back the focus to the community, and who have a vision for a sustainable future, she said.
Guzman-Newton said that she’d be hard-pressed to find anything she disagrees with in the city’s general plan, calling its goal of providing housing opportunities for all full-time residents especially pertinent.
“It is a thoughtful description of what we can be as a community,” she said.
City officials, she said, should run Moab like they would run a strong business.
“You take care of your assets, you manage your investments, and it’s going to pay back to us in kind for our residents and for visitors,” she said. “Good infrastructure definitely will pay us back, and it will save us money in the future, like we’re seeing with the wastewater treatment plant (under construction).”
As she’s been on the campaign trail, Guzman-Newton said she’s talked to people who believe that in the past, officials were not conveying the information that they needed to be involved in its decision-making process.
The city is coming out of a “quagmire of community distrust,” she said, so Guzman-Newton understands why the city hired a new communications director – although she’s not sure if it was the right position to fill.
Guzman-Newton also voiced support for the city’s decisions to hire Sustainability Director Dr. Rosemarie Russo and Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder.
“I have to say, I’d pay double the amount that we paid (Winder), because he is amazing,” she said. “… He really is upping the ante for all of us.”
Patterson, a single mother who said she knows as well as anyone how hard it is to make ends meet in Moab, said the time has come for “common sense and productivity” to make its return to city council.
The “tax-and-spend behavioral pattern” by the city council needs to stop, she said.
Patterson said she understands the need for an organization to have the proper resources that meet the community’s needs. However, the recent growth in the city’s operation costs is puzzling, she said, questioning the city’s decision to hire a new communications director.
In the past two years, Patterson said, she’s learned that the city lacked the ability to communicate with the press and the public.
“But outsourcing that ability away from the elected representatives isn’t the right direction,” she said. “If you need a filter or a mouthpiece for city council people and a mayor, you’ve got problems.”
A more responsible approach to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars would go a long way toward updating Moab’s infrastructure, she said. If certain funds need to be reallocated for the time being, she said she would support it as long as the reallocation is sustainable, and redirect those funds once things are up to par.
Patterson said she favors the general plan’s statements that support and encourage the growth of small businesses.
In terms of recent city council actions she supports, she said she favors its 3-2 vote in favor of a zoning status agreement for the proposed Lionsback Resort development.
“However, the way that they attempted to flip-flop after the vote was very concerning – very frustrating,” she said.
Patterson also took council members to task for “nitpicking” at high-density developments that could increase the availability of affordable housing in Moab.
“They need to get out of their own way and allow more high-density developments to be put up in town,” she said. “We can’t keep complaining about no affordable housing if there’s no supply of affordable housing.”
Duncan, who previously served on the Grand County Planning Commission for eight years, identified efforts to address Moab’s affordable housing problem as his top priority as a candidate. Efforts to curb noise levels on the east side of town – and to improve the city’s infrastructure – follow, he said.
He said he also supports plans for an expanded Utah State University-Moab campus – the sooner, the better, he said.
“I think that the positive impacts of that expansion will outweigh the negative aspects,” Duncan said.
Duncan said he’s encouraged that Gov. Gary Herbert seems to be receptive to the idea of broadening the list of allowable uses of Transient Room Tax (TRT) revenues from overnight accommodations. Although the TRT funding formula is a county issue, it still matters because it overlaps with the city, he said.
State Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, indicated that he and other lawmakers are happy to represent the city’s position on legislation, Duncan said, as long as it comes to a consensus about what it wants.
Duncan said he supports the city council’s decision earlier this year to reject an application for a rezone on 400 East. Planning staff, he said, pushed through a “kind of quick and dirty” amendment to the proposal for affordable housing, and the council had concerns about the unintended consequences it might have.
“At the same time, the issue is still there, and that’s one of the things that I hope to help with down the road: Rewrite that code to try to avoid some of those unintended consequences and build some affordable housing here on 4th East and other places,” he said.
Duncan also criticized Grand County’s decision to support SkyWest Airlines’ contract for Essential Air Service between Canyonlands Field Airport and Denver, as opposed to Boutique Air’s proposal for continued service to and from Salt Lake City and Denver.
“(It) flies in the face of a widely stated desire by the city to go with Boutique Air,” he said.
Niehaus serves as the executive director of Community Rebuilds, a local nonprofit that works with qualifying homeowners to build affordable and energy-efficient straw-bale homes.
If she’s elected, she said that she will do what she can to help the council come together with not just the city, but Grand and San Juan counties, as well.
She noted that Sen. Hinkins and State Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, recently urged the city and the county to come to a joint resolution on issues, and she vowed to pursue a “serious engagement” with state lawmakers.
“It’s our responsibility to come together,” she said. “Compromise is hard, and sometimes, in a collaborative effort, some people don’t get their way, but we have to play the long-game approach to how we really take Moab and move Moab forward.”
Niehaus also said she would partner with the Grand County School District.
The district’s issues aren’t just school issues, she said, but community issues. The school district needs the support of the city and the county, as well as their respective leaders, she said, to tackle them.
In her eyes, Moab is a beautiful, safe rural community with an “amazing” hospital and school system.
“We’re rich with resources, and so many strengths,” she said.
On the other hand, she said the city is grappling with a lack of affordable housing, a monolithic tourism economy and aging infrastructure that’s in need of work. But she said she believes that the city’s weaknesses are also opportunities: By building more homes, she said, the community can see more economic diversification, which also helps with improvements to infrastructure.
Niehaus said she was actively engaged with the city’s process to update its housing plan by supporting staffers who were writing it, and by participating in a housing task force.
Deed restrictions and assured housing policies are important to promote affordable housing, she said, as are densities: As a community, officials and citizens need to map out areas where they feel comfortable with a higher-density corridor – a process that will involve “massive communication” between the two sides.
Olsen served as the city’s community development director for 25 years until a previous city council fired him – along with then-City Economic Development Specialist Ken Davey – during former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson’s administration.
As community development director, Olsen developed numerous city trails, including the Mill Creek Parkway – an extensive greenbelt that runs through town; he also served as the city’s arborist.
“I loved (the job),” he said. “Every bit of it.”
A self-described moderate and centrist, Olsen noted the presence of campaign signs that show the divide between Moab’s progressives and conservatives. He went on to reference the Spaghetti Western “A Fistful of Dollars,” in which Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name character steps into a dispute between two rival factions in a polarized small town and heightens the tensions for personal gain.
“I’m not the one who would start a rivalry or pit each other against each other like in that show,” Olsen said.
For Olsen, Moab is a booming city that serves as an example that communities from Farmington, New Mexico, to Emery County are trying to emulate.
“Moab is always the example of what they should do in Emery County to get what they want,” he said.
On the downside, he said, there is currently no balance on the city’s governing body, with no conservative members – or people in the middle, like himself, he said.
Olsen said he would work to involve the city council and the Utah League of Cities and Towns, as well as other cities and influential people, to support state legislation that’s in the city’s interests – and to work with them on bills that they oppose.
At the school district level, Olsen noted that the district is doing a lot of work to address bullying.
Kids who face bullying in schools need to have the confidence that they can be heard, he said. On the other hand, he said, they need to be tough.
“That’s why I’m running for mayor,” he said. “You get knocked down, you get back up and get on with it.”
Q&A sponsored by League of Women Voters
A video and a podcast of the Grand County League of Women Voters’ 2017 candidate forum are now available online. Visit the League’s website at: grandcounty.ut.lwvnet.org/ and its Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/GrandLWV/ for more information.
Ballots for the city’s municipal election will be mailed on Tuesday, Oct. 17. The deadline to register to vote is Tuesday, Oct. 31, either in-person at the Grand County Clerk’s Office, or online at vote.utah.gov.
The Moab Sun News will be publishing its fall voter guide to the candidates for city council and mayor in its Oct. 19-25 edition.