Young city council makes it through 2020 by working togetherDec 14, 2020 02:43PM ● By Justin Adams
By Justin Adams | [email protected]
One year ago, the Sandy City Council was flipped on its head when three longtime members retired and a fourth member lost re-election. That resulted in a seven-member council where the majority of members were in their first year. That kind of turnover would be cause for at least a little concern in any organization, but when the Sandy Journal asked those new members last year, they were confident that the fresh blood would be a strength, not a weakness, for the city council. So how has the first year gone?
“I think it has been a big learning curve. It’s been an immersion experience,” said Monica Zoltanski, one of those four new council members who represents the city’s fourth district. “While there is benefit to having long-term representatives, I think it’s actually a plus for the community to have a younger council. We’ve been able to look at things that operate in the city with a new eye, saying, ‘why do we always do it that way?’”
Fellow City Councilmember Allison Stroud agreed that the council has actually benefited from the addition of four new sets of eyes.
“It hasn’t been as detrimental as what I sometimes imagined could happen when you replace more than half of any body. It’s almost been a blessing because we’ve had to grow with each other and lean on each other. No one’s felt self-conscious for asking questions,” she said.
City Council Office Director Mike Applegarth said he has been impressed by the new council members’ attention to detail and willingness to spend time learning the process and digging deep into policy.
“I would characterize the council this year as very much into the details of policy. They really want as much information as they can get, in advance of making a decision. They really spend time making sure they understand that information,” he said.
An added benefit of spending more time to dig into concepts is that residents watching the meetings are more likely to learn a thing or two about how the city works.
“Some of our meetings have been civics lessons. Some of them have accounting lessons,” Zoltanski said.
For example, following this summer’s budget process, the council decided that they wanted to spend more time digging into the fine details of the budget throughout the year. Since then, the council (facilitated by the city’s budget director) has held informative discussions on the budget about every other week.
“It’s giving them better insight into why the budget is put together the way it is. I think that will have a huge benefit going into the next budget season,” Applegarth said.
Of course, it hasn’t been an easy or normal year by any measure, as the council had to grapple with a city budget in the face of uncertainty surrounding how COVID-19 would impact Sandy’s economic outlook. Through that process there were passionate disagreements and debate on what approach the city should take, but through it all, Stroud said all the council members maintained a level of professionalism and respect for one another.
“You have seven people who may not agree on things but we’ve been respectful. We’re all doing our best to represent our constituents. We respect each other and that’s why we’re able to get things done,” she said.
“I really like all my colleagues,” echoed Zoltanski. “When everyone shares a common focus, that brings everyone together. We have disagreements of course, we don’t see things the same way all the time. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get the job done.”
Aside from the economic impacts of COVID-19, the pandemic has also forced the council into holding its meetings virtually for the majority of the year.
“Relationships translate to value. When we’re cut off from our co-workers, staff and stakeholders physically, we are missing a big element of success. We have to find ways to humanize the online experience,” Zoltanski said.
Still, it’s not all bad, said Stroud, who noted that online communication creates a record she can go back and review.
The online meetings have also made it easier for residents to get involved, whether as passive viewers or actually joining into the Zoom meeting to give public comment.
“I actually believe that the online format has made the council better,” Applegarth said. “The numbers demonstrate that we get much better public participation, and that makes the council better. Having people participate, it has an influence on the council’s deliberative process. With more resident feedback comes better decisions.”