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Holladay Journal

Running unopposed: Uncontested elections in Holladay raise governing structure questions

Oct 04, 2021 12:31PM ● By Zak Sonntag

Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle reflecting from his office. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

Public office appears to be getting popular—at least by the measure that across the country ballots have been bursting with contenders at every level of government, including many western municipalities who are witness to a fierce new era of mayoral competition.

But in the City of Holladay this trend, for better or worse, is not catching on.

Holladay residents will vote in November in a municipal election where two of three races are being run unopposed, including an uncontested mayoralty, raising questions about the community’s political competitiveness and calling attention to the inherent hurdles to public service in a “weak-mayor” form of government.

“This is the work of public service, and I’m of the opinion that you should come in, do your part, then let somebody else take the baton,” said two-term incumbent Mayor Rob Dahle.

Dahle, who jumped into politics after a 20-year run in retail business, was a dark horse candidate whose campaign made an 11th-hour surge from behind to narrowly eke out his competitor. But since that first run the competition has been nil. After back-to-back re-elections unopposed, setting up a 12-year stint without churn in the chair, one wonders what factors have kept other contenders from the ring; although Dahle communicated a willingness to pass the baton to a worthy successor, no one reached out to grab it.

“Not seeing any opposition makes you wonder if our mayor is just really popular, or if it’s simply a thankless job that nobody wants,” said a lifelong Holladay resident named Natalie, who believes it’s an important vote. “Either way a little opposition is always preferred because sometimes you need to shake things up.”

Weak-mayor government

Many facets impact opposition scarcity in municipal elections. But the aspect under examination lately is the “weak-mayor” structure of government, whose compensation model makes it challenging to attract talent. Officially known as the mayor-council government, Holladay’s municipal power structure consists in a six person council of part-time legislators who handle budget and zoning issues while leaving the lion’s share of administration to a city-manager’s office.

Technocrats and political scientists often endorse the weak-mayor model for smaller cities like Holladay, believing it promotes institutional continuity and helps keep power in check.

“I happen to think that Holladay’s form of government is the very best kind you can have. It works because you have elected officials fulfilling key roles, but it still gives experts with experience the power in running the day-to-day. You keep the chain of command without gumming up the daily work of running a city,” said Paul Allred, Holladay’s recently retired development director, who worked in small-city governments for 25 years. “Also, you don’t have to worry about too much power consolidating in the hands of a ‘strong mayor,’” who will have more responsibilities but may lack expertise in dealing with bureaucratic minutiae, Allred explained.

Elected representatives are less immersed in municipal dealings in a weak-mayor structure, but the council nonetheless retains ultimate say over issues residents care most about.

“The big issues for me are police, our tax base, and the Cottonwood Mall site,” said Natalie, the Holladay resident, during a doorstep interview. “I think it’s important to have a strong police presence, and I also want to see our city bring in more restaurants and businesses to support our tax base.”

The weak-mayor structure gives councilmembers authority over these issues, and their roles are designed to require less than 10 labor hours a week. However, the unspoken truth is that the mayor’s job entails much more.

“The mayor’s spot is a little bit dicey because to do that job right calls for a significant time commitment. Therefore you need to be someone of means or have a spouse who’s the breadwinner. That limits the pool. There are all kinds of people who might be a good mayor but can’t do it for that reason,” said Councilmember Paul Fotheringham of District 3, whose name has been floated as a successor to Dahle for the mayoralty.

Time is often taken up by participation in non-mandatory boards, like UPD and UFA, Wasatch Waste and Recycling, and League of Cities & Towns, which have big implications for municipalities.

“We need to be active and present in all these organizations and that takes time,” said Dahle, admitting that his actual work can appear incommensurate with the paygrade, which may deter talent. “There is no financial gain to this position. It’s probably a money loser from an opportunity standpoint. To do the job properly requires more than is technically obligated and maybe that’s why you don’t get more people throwing their hat in the race.”

This reality shines light on the tricky balance between maintaining the benefits of a weak-mayor system while providing the monetary reward sufficient to lure talented candidates. 

“In most cities it’s a labor of love for council members. I don’t think this should be a full-time job, but for what the city gets from their representatives, I think more compensation would not be unjustified,” Allred said.

COVID changes things

In Holladay’s southwestern District 3, Fotheringham is also up for re-election—and he, too, is running unopposed. Fotheringham, who got his start in politics as a precinct chair for State Rep. Jani Iwamoto in the early 2010s, and later captured District 3 on a platform of financial sustainability, delayed his own ambitions for council because he lacked the familial and financial flexibility to serve. Now he offers additional theories as to what’s kept the contenders at bay.

“This is entry-level politics, and you win by knocking doors and meeting people face to face. But with COVID and all the concern about interfacing, I think that might have an impact on someone’s decision to undertake a campaign right now,” said Fotheringham, who attributes his own victory to indefatigable door knocking. “The reason I won is that I knocked on more doors than my opponent and that would be harder to do right now.”

COVID and compensation notwithstanding, there is another argument for Holladay’s political non-competition, persuasive as it is simplistic: 

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said former Holladay development director Allred, whose opinion, colloquial as it is, appears to be shared widely. 

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’

Dahle’s tenure has been marked by an insistence on running an amicable council where egos and external politics are left at the door. But he’s also built strong and loyal alliances with city officials by a practice of inclusive policy making and a tact for recognizing when he’s not the expert.

“A lot of times an elected official will come in and try to stop everything and find fault just to let people know they’re in charge. But Dahle doesn’t have an ego. He looked at things from all sides and he was open minded,” Allred said.

Holladay council seats are nonpartisan positions—they don’t run as Democrats or Republicans—but even non-partisan councils run aground on divisive issues, particularly when taking up “message bills” meant to show support for causes over which cities have no jurisdiction. Under Dahle, the council has steered clear of divisive topics and appears to be the stronger for it.

“We don’t always vote the same and we can disagree very vehemently, but we still get along. You hear horror stories of other municipalities, but we take our nonpartisan roles seriously. So even if we come from a different political spectrum, it’s an agreeable atmosphere, and that can be attributed to the leadership of the mayor,” said Fotheringham.

Political atmosphere a deterrent?

For those tuned into state and national politics the idea of agreeable power-sharing sounds fantastical, especially against the rhetoric of increasingly popular mediums like cable news and talk radio where the tones can be contentious.

“I think it makes a big difference to have nonpartisan elections because it forces us to be more objective and not simply vote the party line, which a lot of people do even if they disagree with their party’s candidates,” said Amy, a Holladay resident who works from home as a database administrator. “But I’m worried that democracy is going downhill generally and that people have lost faith in politics. I’ve seen harassment, intolerance. I can’t stand it, and I wonder if maybe that’s the reason nobody wants to run.”

“When I see the way some of these civil servants, elected officials and school board officials are treated sometimes it scares me. It’s unfortunate and I hope it’s something we can correct because, if not, I’m not sure who’s going to be willing to do these jobs,” Dahle said. “No regular person wants to go be verbally attacked or physically threatened. I want to see us get back to more civilized behavior in terms of how we engage each other in the public square.”

Peter Hoj, a Holladay resident and chair of the Interfaith Council in Holladay, ponders the issue as well and worries about the impact on the city’s ability to attract talented civil servants.

“I imagine in this political atmosphere you’ll have some not dare put themselves out there because they’re worried they’ll get eaten up. I think the atmosphere is a deterrent. The problem is that people only look at two out of 10 issues instead of looking at candidates and issues globally,” Hoj said. “But that’s actually what I like about our mayor, he tries to unite because he understands that nobody gets exactly what they want so he works to find compromise.”

“One of the things I’m proudest of,” Dahle said, “is that we have always had a respectful legislative body. I think that’s what residents expect of their officials, and I’m proud we don’t let politics enter into how we do business.”

Face of the government

The mayor’s business is not limited to hearings and work-sessions because it extends into the participatory fabric of the city where Dahle believes his role is to “be the face of the government out in the community.” 

Indeed, much of his popular appeal stems from a community-centric style of retail politics that puts him smack dab in the action; chumming with constituents at the city’s summer concert series; or dancing with the high school flash mob at the Day of National Service event; even offering his services as a barber and giving buzz cuts to Holladay police officers who shaved their heads in support of an officer battling cancer.

This style of leadership goes a long way in Holladay where folks believe deeds top words.

“The mayor often comes to the interfaith meetings even though he probably has plenty of other things to do. I think that’s a part of his appeal and it’s a great way to build the community. That says a lot,” Hoj said.

Past and future

Dahle’s tenure, however, has not been without a few bumps. He presided over the council’s unpopular vote to rezone the former Cottonwood Mall for a large, multi-use development called the Holladay Quarter, a decision that was roundly defeated by a resident referendum which took the city to court. 

“I supported the referendum because I thought that the mall site plan was wrong, and that influences my opinion of the mayor,” said Amy, the local resident.

Dahle, nonetheless, stands by the decision and said, “Under the same circumstances, I’d vote the same way again.”

For some residents this adds value to the Dahle brand.

“I’m a mother, so I’m concerned with the practical things of living in a community. We don’t need four pharmacies—we need some business variety. If I need to get a pair of socks I have to wait for Amazon to deliver or drive all the way to Fort Union. That’s why I supported the [first] former mall development,” said Natalie, who raised five children in the city. 

Another potential tenure ender came earlier this year when the Dahle council raised the property tax rate, a politically risky move for any leader. Yet, if the decision upset residents, it wasn’t enough to spur on would-be challengers.

“We just passed a big tax increase, so you’d think if there was a time that folks would be upset and want to come in and challenge it’d be now,” said Dahle, who says his third term will be focused on putting that new revenue to its proper use. “We’re going to execute the strategic plan that we envisioned with those tax dollars and put together improvements, like our interior road structures and storm drain system, and show residents tangible results quickly.”

On the cusp of his third term, Dahle reflected on the moment he first decided to make a bid, and he paraphrased an American president.

“I was at my son’s high school event and they spoke on Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech. It had an impact on me at that moment. I decided I didn’t want to be the person on the outside of the arena criticizing but who wasn’t willing to get in and get his nose bloodied.”