Washington City mayoral candidates discuss differences of opinion on a mayor’s role

WASHINGTON CITY— There weren’t many points the candidates for Washington City mayor disagreed on as they shared their views during a recent candidate forum.

Attendees at the Washington City candidate forum hosted at the Washington City Community Center by the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce, Washington City, Utah, Oct. 12, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

While they had similar thoughts on issues of growth and water, incumbent Mayor Ken Neilson and challenger Kress Staheli, a current member of the City Council, expressed differences in what they felt the role of the city’s mayor is.

The two men participated in a candidate forum held Tuesday evening at the Washington City Community Center that also featured candidates running for City Council. Neilson, who is nearing the completion of his third term as mayor, is seeking reelection while Staheli, who has served on the council twice, is seeking the mayor’s seat.

Though they spoke to the perennial issues of increasing growth and water needs, it wasn’t until forum moderator Ed Tracy asked the candidates what they felt the role as mayor is in relation to the city manager that differences between the candidates were highlighted.

“The city manager is the director of the city,” Neilson said. “I believe the mayor needs to get out of his way sometimes.”

The city manager is hired to direct the day-to-day operations of the city; however, the status of his contract with the city is left in the hands of the City Council, the mayor said.

The role of the mayor is primarily “to help and influence where he can and then to get out of the way,” he repeated.

Mayor Ken Neilson speaks at a candidate forum at the Washington City Community Center, Washington City, Utah, Oct. 12, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“I think that’s the role of a great leader: when you can learn when to jump in, but more importantly, when to jump out,” Neilson said.

Staheli said he respectfully disagreed with the hands-off approach Neilson favors.

The mayor should work and walk with the city manager and work collectively with the City Council, he said.

“We can’t let staff solve all of our problems,” Steheli said. “We need active, engaged, intentional elected officials.”

There are issues that the mayor and council should be out in front of and determine how to best address, he said. Once the council has decided on a course of action, it is then given to the city manager and staff for implementation.

“Our best efforts are that synergy of all of us – city manager as the executive branch and mayor and City Council as the legislative branch – working together to solve the issues,” Staheli said.

On water issues, the mayor said the city is engaged in conservation efforts and working with the Washington County Water Conservancy District on additional ways to save water. As the mayor of Washington City, Neilson currently sits on the water district’s board of trustees.

Neilson added that the city is putting a straw in every water supply it can right now, which includes the recent construction of four wells in the Grapevine area that are producing more water than originally expected.

Mayoral candidate Kress Staheli speaks at a candidate forum at the Washington City Community Center, Washington City, Utah, Oct. 12, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Still, he also urged people to practice water conservation.

“We’ve always lived in a desert and always had water issues – it’s up to us to fix it,” Nielson said.

In the end, if there is no water, there is no growth, the mayor added.

Both Neilson and Staheli support the Lake Powell Pipeline and each stress the need for water conservation.

On the issue of growth, the topic transformed into a plug for more commercial development in the city.

When a new residential development is proposed, Staheli said there should be an expectation from the City Council for these developments, particularly large ones, to have a commercial component. This is so the city can draw on an additional source of sales tax and not just more property tax.

Sales tax is primarily used to fund the administrative and public safety aspects of the city, Staheli said.

However, if residential development outstrips commercial development, sales tax may not be sufficient enough to cover the city’s operational costs, which would result in property taxes being raised to make up the difference.

Bringing in more commercial also means more jobs and possibly better pay, which may help with the affordable housing issue the city faces, Staheli added.

“Its difficult for people to attain housing, so we need to promote business,” he said.

Mail-in ballots have begun to be sent out this week. The general election is set for Nov. 2.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 election by clicking here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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