Vetting candidates is the single most important responsibility of voters, but it’s also one of the hardest things to do properly. If you’re like most voters, you generally choose your candidates based on information you get from the media even though it’s biased and is often heavily filtered. Our two local papers, The Daily Herald and The Crossroads Journal, are prime examples of how media outlets protect corrupt politicians even when they are dirty. Both papers had reporters at the February 13th town hall meeting in which Mayor Heather Jackson publicly admitted to using city employees to babysit her kids and clean her house, yet neither of them covered these confessions in their coverage of the event.
My goal in writing the “Eagle Mountain City Utility Scandal” report was to give the residents of the city unfiltered information with supporting documentation so they could see for themselves how bad things were at City Hall. I was also hoping that it would prompt other reform-minded individuals to step up and run for office because I knew it would take a good team to fix our city. This is exactly what happened shortly after my report went viral online.
One of the first people to approach me was the husband of a disgruntled former city employee who was extremely upset with the corruption in the city. This man was willing to run for mayor, and at first glance he seemed to be the perfect candidate. He’s former military, a financial wizard, physically attractive, full of energy, very empathetic, and he was willing to spend large amounts of time and money to replace Mayor Jackson. On the issues we seemed to be in almost perfect agreement, and he was even willing to openly state that certain individuals within the city’s administration had to go even though they were generally nice people. In other words, he seemed like he really wanted to clean house, which is exactly what this city needs.
In fact, he was so supportive of my efforts to raise awareness of the issues that he printed 5,000 color door hangers at his own expense so everyone in the city could learn of my report. He then gave these door hangers to a friend of mine who painstakingly divided the city into 55 different regions so volunteers could easily distribute them to every household.
But once the city learned of his involvement with my efforts to bring reform to Eagle Mountain something truly strange happened. Within about a week he went from being my biggest supporter to being one of my biggest detractors. In a couple of conversations on the phone he described to me in an emotionally distraught voice the intense pressure he was receiving from city supporters online and in person. It was clear to me that the powers-that-be wanted to stop him.
A few days before the door hangers were to be distributed I got an email from his wife asking that I tone down my report by adopting the edited version they created. When I took a cursory look at it I realized that they wanted me to make far more than a few “minor corrections;” they wanted to gut large portions of it, largely to protect their friends who worked for the city. But the part that made me really mad is on the following page. They wanted me to remove my demand that the city publish its utility rates on its bills. Even Mayor Heather Jackson acquiesced to this demand because it was so reasonable. (The parts they wanted removed are in RED.)
Of course, I declined to make the changes he requested and he said that what I was doing was “unchristian.” Next thing I knew he confiscated all the door hangers that were about to be distributed, which essentially stopped our momentum cold in raising awareness of the issues within the city.
I felt really sorry for him because it’s tough being the number one enemy of City Hall, but I also realized that I had made a HUGE mistake in endorsing him and giving him full control of the eagleshare.org website to use as a platform for his campaign. After this experience I recognized that I had used the wrong criteria to vet him and that I had to be a lot more analytical about how I went about selecting candidates to support.
Finding candidates should be a lot like hiring employees. First, you need to identify what you want them to do in office. Next, you need to spec out the qualifications they must have to accomplish these tasks successfully. And last you need to advertise the positions, compare the candidates, and choose the ones that best match the criteria. This is what every citizen should do every election. Elections shouldn’t be the political equivalent of a beauty pageant in which the goal is to find the most attractive candidate; it should be about building a team to accomplish a set of goals, which in this case is fixing Eagle Mountain City’s broken government.
As I started thinking about the things I wanted fixed, I realized that there were an awful lot of them, but that some were more important than others.
I wanted our potholes fixed, our utility rates printed on our bills, and our city employees to stop using city vehicles on personal errands. I wanted the employees in the Utility Billing office to be more courteous and professional. I wanted city council meetings to have more interaction between citizens and elected officials. But I especially wanted theft at all levels of our government to stop. Let me illustrate this latter point.
If a private citizen went down to the local Chevron and stole $20 worth of beer and candy, they’d be arrested, charged, and given a permanent criminal record. But if a government employee takes a nap on the job for an hour and he costs the city $20 per hour, he essentially steals the same amount of money from taxpayers but he gets away with it. This kind of theft happens all too often in Eagle Mountain.
While I was putting together my report my sources gave me examples of city employees who padded their timecards with phony hours they did not work. They shared examples of city employees who liberated “surplus” property from the city. If you look at some of the city’s expense reimbursement forms, you’ll find the signatures of finance directors and administrators who signed off on “official” travel expenses that are clearly fraudulent. Our first year city administrator, who makes more than the former administrator who had 38 years of experience, only works four days a week and neighbors complain about him taking three hour lunches at home on the days that he supposedly works. You’ve got city council members who don’t pay for their own tickets to Pony Express Day’s events, and are even allowed to take in as many family and friends for free as they want. And you’ve got developers who get these officials to subsidize the utility infrastructure in their new developments by borrowing money at taxpayer expense and forcing residents to pay off the debts with inflated utility bills. The cumulative effect of all this theft is an extremely expensive and inefficient government.
As I thought about these latter problems, I realized that they weren’t caused by a lack of training, resources, or management skills; they were caused by employees, managers, and officials who lack moral compasses, at least some of the time. And if an outsider like me can discover the scandals I did, I can only imagine what really goes on when no one is looking.
So what’s the bigger problem: potholes, accounting irregularities, deficient customer service skills, lack of dialog with citizens, or employees who regularly take advantage of taxpayers? In my opinion, the last problem is the most troubling. You can improve on-the-job performance with more training and accountability, but it’s almost impossible to fix someone’s morality. The only real way to deal with that is through personnel changes.
When my previous choice for mayor was open about his desire to replace key employees, he was bullied on Facebook and elsewhere until he cracked up emotionally. Ever since then he has shied away from saying anything confrontational in his campaign and his behavior is certainly not going to change if he gets into office.
Former mayors who have tried to clean house have received death threats and have had all kinds of other mind games played on them and their families. If you talk to long-term residents of the city, they will tell you harrowing tales about the types of intimidation and abuse that previous elected officials have had to endure. This is not a job for the faint of heart because there’s so much money at stake, and if a guy can’t handle a little cyber-bullying, he definitely won’t be able to handle the pressure of office if he tries to stop the flow of pork within the city.
(A little known fact within the city is that the short wall that separates the public from their elected officials in the council chambers actually conceals a bullet proof panel that was installed after a developer reportedly brandished a firearm in the council chambers to intimidate the city’s officials.)
Because the job can be so tough, the number one requirement for any candidate in Eagle Mountain should be a proven ability to withstand an immense amount of pressure to do the wrong thing. To find these people I produced and distributed a door hanger that explained our need for new officials and I asked like-minded individuals to contact me on the Call for Candidates page on this website. As other concerned citizens came forward, I met with them until we were able to create a team that had the skills that were necessary to fix our city. The three individuals who expressed a willingness to run for office are:
Robert Schermerhorn (Mayor)
Nick Jessen (City Council)
Tom Westmoreland (City Council)
All of them have personal bios that convinced me they had the “Right Stuff” to stand up to corruption and not fold under the pressure they would inevitably feel in office.
What’s telling is that none of the other candidates in this race ever approached me and said they wanted to work as a team, even though a couple of them specifically asked for my endorsement. According to friends who have talked with them at length, they generally thought I was too confrontational with the city and that I shouldn’t have aired its dirty laundry in public.
What they might not know is that I tried to deal with the city through normal channels first, but it got me nowhere. In fact, after I presented my initial analysis of the city’s out-of-control utility rates to the council, I was quickly approached by the assistant city administrator, Ifo Pili, who praised my spreadsheet skills and suggested that I apply for a position as an accountant with the city.
A few months later when I realized that the city wasn’t going to publish its utility rates on our bills or come clean about its outrageous transfers of utility funds into its general fund, it dawned on me that this “job offer” might have just been an attempt to buy me off. The city administrator probably thought it was easier and cheaper to turn a public critic like me to the dark side than it would be to wage a messy battle with me in public. Obviously, this tactic didn’t work and I know it wouldn’t work with the candidates I’m supporting either. They’ve already been there and done that and are pretty much immune to the type of bribes and pressure the city could place on them.
It’s important to note that our city’s problems cannot be dealt with in private. They resemble a big stinky pile of poo and the only way to get rid of them is to rip the tarp off the mess and start shoveling. Anyone who thinks they can get rid of it without creating a stink in the process is hopelessly naïve. And besides, the city has already proven that it doesn’t truly want to fix its problems because it spends most of its time, money and effort on covering them up. The city recently spent $250k on a big PR campaign and it now has a full-time director of public propaganda who works tirelessly online and with the press to cover up its messes. This individual makes about $82k per year, which is almost unheard of in a town with only one stop light.
Once I realized that the city had no interest in cleaning up its messes, I decided to more closely examine its operations and what I found was astounding. There were so many scandals that were easy to document that it was relatively easy to put together a comprehensive report.
Shortly after I published this report in February 2013 the city held a town hall meeting in which it apologized for not putting its utility rates on its bills. And ever since then it has been working tirelessly to fix our potholes, increase dialog between citizens and elected officials, and stop the more visible signs of abuse of taxpayer funds. But much more needs to be done and the city, so far, has not gotten its outrageous salaries or our long-term debt obligations under control. Hence, the need for new leadership.
Now that the city and its officials are on the run it’s really important to keep pushing them relentlessly until they clean up their act totally or are driven from office. If we give them too much breathing room, they may regroup and find a way to thwart real reform. Robert, Nick, and Tom all recognize this and they will work tirelessly to uncover the city’s problems until they are fixed.
As always, do your own research and make your own decisions, but please, be careful about how you select the candidates you vote for. Looks can be deceiving as I’ve found out through personal experience. Identify what you want your candidates to do, check their backgrounds to make sure they are up to the task, and remember that this is not a beauty contest; it’s a battle to save our city from insolvency and bankruptcy.
If you don’t feel like doing all of your own research, there is another way to choose your candidates that is almost as reliable: identify the individuals that the city and its supporters fear the most and those are probably going to be the guys who can protect your interests the best.
This is an important election and I hope this background information helps you make wiser choices on election day.