This election season, candidates for Orem mayor and city council are divided into two camps: those with signs on University Place mall property and those without.
Candidates who have plunked their campaign signs down near the bustling mall have each signed an agreement with the property owners committing to support continued development at the site. On the other hand, some of their rivals have foregone these high-visibility street corners — and instead are raising alarm about what they argue is an ethically dubious request for candidates to cement their positions on future city policy issues.
“I’m supposed to go in as impartial. Not representative of the company, but a representative of the people,” said Dave Young, a first-time candidate for city mayor. “To me, it’s shocking that anyone would sign this thing.”
Young’s opponent, former mayor Jim Evans, said he had no problem putting his name on the document.
One of Evans’ last acts as mayor in 2013 was to approve a plan for the mall development, and he said he’s had fun watching from the sidelines as the proposals take shape. He argues the projects have been a major asset for the city, bringing vitality to the mall in a time when shopping centers around the nation are fading.
“That’s why I didn’t see it was that big of a deal,” Evans said of the mall’s sign document. “I’m not agreeing to do something I didn’t already agree to.”
Tom Macdonald, an incumbent city councilman who’s running for another term, also signed the University Place document, explaining that he was simply pledging to uphold decisions that city officials have already made.
“What I felt that they were asking me is, will you honor previous commitments? Or will you not be an honorable person?” said Macdonald, who added that he feels Young and other candidates are “trying to make an issue out of something that isn’t really an issue.”
A prepared statement from University Place said that before letting candidates place campaign signs on its private property, the mall’s owners wanted an acknowledgment of “the decade University Place, Orem City and residents have worked together to craft zoning and a development plan, supported by voters.”
Private property owners are allowed to refuse candidates who ask to put signs in their yards — and, according to the statement, University Place is no different in wanting to avoid backing candidates that don’t support its interests.
University Place has always asked candidates to endorse an agreement before posting campaign signs on the mall property, says David Spencer, who’s running for re-election to the city council. But the documents are typically simple, laying out when the candidates could erect and take down their signs, he said.
After the primary, University Place presented a different version.
In its statement, University Place explained that the agreement changed after “it became clear during the primaries that some candidates intended to undo” years of work on a development plan for the mall site.
The updated agreement noted that the University Place development is approved for 700,000 square feet of office space, 1.2 million square feet of retail space, 1,800 housing units, a hotel and other entertainment and civic venues. To place a sign at the mall property, candidates would have to pay $10 to the property owners and promise to stick to the development plan described in the agreement.
The “candidate acknowledges, supports, and agrees with the development propositions set forth above,” the form states, and “agrees to support the continued development of University Place in accordance therewith.” Candidates would also have to take down their signs if they make “statements that are contrary” to the agreement.
Like Young, city council candidates LaNae Millett and Spencer opted against putting their names to the document.
“I didn’t feel that that was appropriate in my gut. It just seemed wrong to ask a candidate to do that,” Millett said. “And I had no intention of committing my vote to anyone.”
Spencer said he’s generally a fan of the mall and appreciates the economic boost it’s brought to the city. But the University Place agreement rubbed him the wrong way, he said.
“I’m not that desperate to put a sign up at Macey’s … to make myself have to vote for everything the mall does,” he said. “I don’t agree with that. … And I found places for my signs elsewhere.”
Steven Downs, Orem’s deputy city manager, said city officials haven’t received any formal complaints about the situation and haven’t seen the agreement firsthand. Based on their understanding of the situation, he said, they don’t believe there was any violation of state election law.
“Generally private entities can determine what campaign signs they allow on their property,” he said in a statement “The City doesn’t get involved in these arrangements with candidates and private entities or individuals.”
Downs said Woodbury Corp., owner of University Place, has already secured all necessary approvals for its current development plan and would only need to come back before the council to alter its proposal.
Despite University Place’s assertion that some city candidates are interested in undoing prior development approvals, Spencer and Millett said they’re unaware of anyone who’s taken this position in the race.
Young also said he’s never talked about pushing for reversals, although he added that he will hold the property owners to their past agreements with the city and wouldn’t endorse any project changes that he believes would be detrimental to Orem residents.
And the legal force of the mall’s signage agreement is unclear. Nelson Abbott — who’s an attorney, state lawmaker and Orem resident — said in an interview that the agreement proffered is “definitely written to make it look like a legally-binding contract, but whether it’s legally enforceable is another thing.”
But the enforceability of the document isn’t the main point, said Abbott, who argues it’s unethical for a candidate to take a position simply to secure a signage spot at one of Orem’s most prominent intersections. Abbott disclosed that he’s supporting Young for city mayor.
Young sought Abbott’s advice on the situation but says he intends to remain focused on his campaign rather than on initiating a formal complaint process.
However, his campaign did reach out to local media to call attention to the situation. David Herring, Young’s campaign manager who’s been helping candidates in Orem for about 10 years, said he’s never seen an agreement like the one the mall was requiring candidates to sign if they wanted to advertise their campaigns at the “prime location” near Macey’s.
It’s nothing new to ask candidates to commit to policy positions, but he said the situation with University Place is different because it wanted people to enter into a more formal agreement. He said some of his professional contacts have helped him pitch the story to local media and that their contributions would count as an in-kind donation to the Young campaign.
The sign flap is linked to a much larger issue in the Orem race, revolving around how the city is developing and whether officials are listening to residents as they approve these projects. City residents will choose between Young and Evans for mayor and will also elect three council members in the Nov. 2 election.
Millett, Macdonald and Spencer are vying with Quinn Mecham, Shaunte Ruiz Zundel and Nichelle Jensen for the open council seats.
Growth and development are some of the main reasons Young jumped into the Orem race. The wealth management company owner has lived in the city for more than 30 years, and he says he’s not happy with some of the changes happening around him. It feels like “endless apartments and endless traffic” are coming to the community, he says, without the roads and other amenities needed to support the growth.
Millett, another first-time candidate, said she’s felt the same frustration as developers have eyed her neighborhood for a six-story apartment project that would stand a short distance from the back fences of nearby homes.
“That’s not appropriate protection for neighborhoods,” she said.
Downs acknowledges that there’s public resistance to some of Orem’s development planning but says that pushback is typical in any expanding community.
U.S. Census data shows the city has grown by about 11% in the past 10 years and now has a population of nearly 100,000 people — and each newly arriving generation wants the city to stay the same as when they moved in, according to Downs.
“People who moved here in the ‘70s hate what’s happening right now, because this isn’t the Orem that they knew,” he said. “But the people that moved into Orem in the ‘40s hate what happened in Orem in the ‘70s.”