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Sandy Journal

From activist to mayor: Monica Zoltanski’s long road to city hall

Jan 03, 2022 03:50PM ● By Justin Adams

There will be a new face at the head of Sandy City’s executive branch starting this month, after Monica Zoltanski managed to beat out a crowded field of candidates by the narrowest of margins in November’s election. 

Thanks to a state law passed earlier in the year, multiple cities across Utah had the chance to try out ranked choice voting, a method that allows an entire field of candidates to advance to a general election and have voters rank them. The results are then tallied in a way that allows each voters’ preferences to be represented in a holistic, rather than binary, way. 

Additionally, former Mayor Kurt Bradburn’s decision to not seek re-election meant that this would be Sandy’s first mayoral election without an incumbent in decades. 

These two factors combined to produce an election race unlike any other in the history of Utah, (at least at the municipal level). Four current city councilor members entered the race (Zoltanski being one of them). Another former city council member threw their hat in the ring, as well as a city council staffer. Finally there was Jim Bennett, a local businessman (and son of former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett). 

From among that field of candidates, Zoltanski emerged with a 21-vote margin of victory, barely beating out Bennett. 

Zoltanski credited the close victory with her persistence and determination, as she continued knocking on doors all the way up to election day. 

“With so many people in the race, I knew to win it, what was going to make the difference is the personal conversations at the door. And I never lost that focus,” she said.

It was a fitting campaign strategy for a candidate who first entered the public spotlight in Sandy city as a grassroots organizer.

Open space activism

Given everything that has transpired since then, the year 2017 kind of seems like an eternity ago. That’s when Zoltanski learned that Salt Lake County was planning to pave a three-mile stretch of trail within Dimple Dell Park. An avid equestrian and outdoor enthusiast, Zoltanski began organizing a campaign of opposition. 

She gathered signatures, made shirts and signs bearing slogans like, “Save, Not Pave,” and “Keep Dimple Dell Wild.” She spent hours walking through the park in the winter cold, talking with strangers and raising awareness of what the county was proposing. 

During this time, she started wearing a red cowboy hat to make herself more noticeable and recognizable during her activism efforts. Well, something about the hat stuck, and became a part of Zoltanski’s “brand” ever since. (It even featured prominently on her campaign signs).

“I think it’s a symbol of grit and determination…that one voice can make a difference,” she said, about what the hat represents to people. 

That one voice did indeed make a difference (as well as the many other voices she added to her own) as then-Mayor Ben McAdams agreed to cancel the plan to pave the trail. 

Out of that initial victory was born the Dimple Dell Preservation Community, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the 630-acre park in the center of the city. The group has organized annual cleanup efforts of the park and made efforts to preserve the Muir-Poulsen house, a historic farm house on the east end of the park. 

From activist to city councilmember

Leading up to the 2019 municipal election cycle, then-District 3 council member Chris McCandless announced that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election. Immediately, friends and supporters of Zoltanski’s Dimple Dell efforts encouraged her to pursue the vacant seat. 

“They saw that I was effective at organizing, communicating and leading. It wasn’t something that I would have come to on my own. I needed that support,” Zoltanski told the Sandy Journal in 2019. 

With that grassroots support behind her, Zoltanski was able to secure a narrow victory over Brooke D'Sousa in the District 4 race. (D’Sousa was just elected to one of the city’s at-large council seats). 

The addition of Zoltanski, as well as three other newcomers, created a historic 6-1 female majority on the council. It was a notable development for Zoltanski, who grew up during a time when she didn’t see as many women in the political realm as one does today, let alone constituting majorities. 

“For coming generations, without seeing the role models that look like them in high positions, it’s hard to imagine you at that seat. I think that’s really important,” she said at that time.

The new council began 2020 with an emphasis on restoring some stability to a body that had frequently drawn headlines for its dysfunction—division within the council as well as a fractured relationship with the mayor’s office. 

While anyone who follows the city council will know that there have been a number of passionate disagreements over policy issues during the last two years, Zoltanski insists that none of it has been personal for her. 

“There have been some hard-fought battles and some votes that have come down to the wire with a lot of politics behind them. It’s not always easy, it’s not always smooth sailing,” she said.  

But just having tension on the council isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Zoltanski. In fact, it may even be a good thing.

“Some people suggest that we should return to an era when it was smooth sailing and city council meetings were 20-30 minutes long. I attended some of those meetings as a resident and made me wonder, when are these decisions actually being made. I’d rather have those decisions made in the daylight, even if that means residents get to see us air out our differences,” she said. 

From city councilmember to mayor

Much like her jump to the city council, Zoltanski’s jump to the mayor’s office was preceded by an incumbent stepping down. This time, it was Mayor Bradburn who announced that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election. So she decided to throw her hat in the ring (the red cowboy hat, specifically). 

Between her time as a prosecutor for the city, her experience as a local business owner, grassroots activism leadership and her time on the council, she felt she had a “broad exposure to the various needs of the city.”

“Sandy needs strong leadership. We’re at a critical point in our city’s history. We have some big challenges, from our housing market to open space preservation, and funding all the things we love about Sandy, on a budget we can afford,” she said. 

According to Zoltanski, the two issues which popped up the most as she talked to residents during the campaign was housing density and the Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation debate. 

Zoltanski, who has publicly opposed the plan to build a gondola system that would transport skiers up the mountain, said one of her first priorities in office will be conducting a survey to find out what Sandy residents want. 

Another priority for her is starting an economic advisory committee.

“I want to bring together business leaders to identify how we can support both big and small businesses in Sandy,” she said. She also wants to make sure that residents have a seat at that table.

“We need to tap into what our residents want. What kinds of businesses are missing? I’ve learned from the campaign that people want more recreation and lifestyle businesses: ski shops, bike shops, good restaurants, neighborhood markets.”

All those efforts will officially get underway when Zoltanski takes office. The oath of office ceremony for her and two newly-elected city council members is scheduled to take place at Alta High School on Jan. 3.