ST. GEORGE — Among other topics discussed at a candidate forum Wednesday, a question from an audience member urged St. George Mayor Dan McArthur to look into the feasibility of adding Sunday routes to the SunTran bus schedule. Another question from the audience sparked a lively debate about the city animal shelter, prompting several candidates to publicly question the way the city handled allegations of misconduct by shelter employees.
The forum was hosted by the Association of PUDs (planned unit developments) and Condominiums and moderated by AOPC president Jerry Campbell.
Public transportation on Sundays
When Campbell invited the audience to ask questions of the candidates, Marianne Mansfield, a retired elementary school principal stood up and asked McArthur why the city’s public transportation system doesn’t run on Sundays. Mansfield said that she was at the forum representing Grace Episcopal Church, who asked her to pose the question directly to McArthur. Mansfield said that the church had emailed the question to every candidate earlier in the campaign.
“We received answers from everyone, but I don’t think we received anything from you,” Mansfield said to McArthur. “So I’m going to ask you directly. Many people who work in minimum wage jobs need to use public transportation to get there; they need to be able to get groceries, they need to be able to access health care, they need to have spiritual services.” What would it take to get the busses to run on Sunday? she said.
McArthur apologized for not yet replying to the email but acknowledged seeing it and said he would reply. He hasn’t heard anybody complain about not being able to catch the bus on Sundays, he said, and that this was the only time he’d heard the request. “I don’t know how many people need to use it on Sunday,” he said.
Adding Sunday routes is not as simple as it might sound, McArthur said. “Once we started down the road to public transportation, we knew there was no turning back and it never pays for itself.” He said that he’d like to see the service grow and expand to Sundays, but it’s expensive and the city would have to be sure there was a strong demand.
The city is willing to look into the issue, McArthur said; maybe they could start with a limited Sunday service, perhaps with a smaller bus, but first he said he wants to clearly see a demand for a Sunday route to justify the expense. “We ought to take a poll to see how many people would ride,” he said. “There’s a cost to doing business when it comes to public transportation. I’m certainly not going to add something that’s going to cost our taxpayers a lot more money to provide a service. I think we need to grow into that service.”
A a recent council meeting, Transit Manager Fred Davies announced a 1,000-percent increase in ridership over the past 10 years. The city recently approved additional bus routes to Bloomington and Ivins, and earlier this month the City Council approved the purchase of new busses.
City Council candidate Michele Randall said that she has also wondered why the city doesn’t offer services on Sunday.
“So I called (St. George Public Works Director) Larry Bulloch, and he said that he sent out a questionnaire to the riders,” Randall said. Bulloch told her that, based on the questionnaire, the city believes that adding additional weekday routes would be more beneficial than expanding to additional days, she said. “I think that when the demand is there, they will definitely look at adding a Sunday route.”
City council candidate Tara Dunn said she believes that, unlike offering handouts, services like affordable and reliable public transportation help poor people get back to work and become self sufficient.
“We want to have members of society that can contribute,” Dunn said. “Sometimes when people are down-and-out, we have to start with basic steps,” she said. “So if a first step to getting employment or even food is having public transportation, maybe that’s a better step than having them continue as a noncontributing member of society.”
St. George Animal Shelter
The subject of the St. George animal shelter also came up at the candidate forum.
The animal shelter is one of several recent public relation disasters for the city, which is also currently embroiled in a federal class-action lawsuit over code enforcement practices. Last July, widespread accusations of inhumane euthanasia practices and cruel treatment of animals at the city shelter prompted an internal investigation which corroborated many of the allegations. The shelter issue has proven to be a challenge for McArthur’s re-election campaign, made far worse when two pet rescue volunteers came forward with charges that the mayor paid them a visit last July and told them to keep quiet about conditions at the shelter until after the campaign. Many St. George residents were shocked when McArthur said in an interview that he could not deny the accusations.
“The elephant in the room tonight is the animal shelter,” Campbell said. “An internal investigation showed over 20 years of neglect and abuse and inhumane euthanasia practices at the shelter,” Campbell said. “How could things have gone so badly for so long without city officials knowing about it?”
Council candidate Tara Dunn, who first raised the issue publicly at a primary campaign event in July, said that she believes that the problems at the shelter arose because the city consistently failed to provide the necessary funding to the shelter, which has operated with a much smaller budget than many less-populated cities throughout Utah.
“If the shelter had been on the tour that the elected officials take, that may have opened their eyes up as to what was going on,” Dunn said, referring to the periodic audits of city facilities which the mayor and city manager arrange for the City Council. “We just need to prioritize the kinds of things that we’re not putting on brochures. They aren’t the prettiest things; the animal shelter is kind of depressing,” she said, “but it can become more positive part of our community.”
Council candidate Ed Baca, a former police detective, agreed with Dunn that the city failed for years to take appropriate steps to address the issues at the shelter.
“One of the things that happened as a result of this — now Tara touched on the listening part — it’s the hearing part,” Baca said, “people are listening but they are not hearing what’s being said by some of these citizens.”
Baca questioned whether it was appropriate for the mayor to task the police with conducting the investigation. While he believes the St. George Police investigated the allegations to the best of their ability, he said, the animal control officers, who had allegedly witnessed certain incidents at the shelter, perhaps did not want to come forward to their bosses with allegations that would have been embarrassing to the Police Department.
“The Police Department followed up on witnesses and the information that was presented to them at the time,” Baca said, “but you have to have witnesses come forward who have seen these things and are willing to testify. That seemed to be lacking.”
Mayoral candidate and current city councilman Jon Pike said that the city should never have allowed the situation at the shelter to get as bad as it did. “We missed this,” Pike said. “It was a big miss and we can fix it.”
He wants people to feel comfortable addressing problems with city leaders, Pike said. The problems at the shelter would have been dealt with long ago, he said, if there had been better channels of communication between residents and their elected officials.
“I think this is a good example of an area where we could institute a permanent animal shelter advisory board,” Pike said. As the city grows and it becomes difficult for elected officials to always know when problems arise, he said he intends to establish citizen advisory boards to oversee certain civic functions. These boards will not set policy themselves, but will inform and advise the city council.
“If we’d had one in place at the shelter,” Pike said, “I don’t think we would have had this problem.”
While McArthur did not directly address the animal shelter issue, he did say that he thinks Pike’s proposal to create an animal shelter advisory board is unnecessary.”We already have a committee at the animal shelter; in fact we need another person added to it,” he said.
Dunn interjected and said that the animal shelter board is nothing like the sorts of advisory boards that Pike had proposed. “What we have at the animal shelter is really just an execution committee,” Dunn said. She said that the current committee isn’t tasked with looking after conditions and procedures. “They meet exclusively to decide whether or not an animal can be put to sleep by a veterinarian,” she said, “I just wanted to clarify that.”
Buy one, get one free
The evening concluded on a humorous note as the candidates gave their closing statements. In his introduction, McArthur joked, as he had at previous candidate forums, that if residents vote for him, they will still get to keep Jon Pike.
“A vote for me is a vote for us both,” McArthur said.
This time around, Pike responded by pointing out if he wins, he has figured out another way for undecided voters to have it both ways: “If you do vote for me, there will be an additional open City Council seat,” he said. “I welcome the mayor to apply.”
The general election will be held next Tuesday, Nov. 5. The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
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