Ogden Mayor's race starts to take shape

Tuesday , July 07, 2015 - 3:54 PM

OGDEN — Since 2012, Sebastian Benitez has worked to keep the windows of the 13-story Ogden Municipal Building gleaming and spot-free. But now the Paraguay native hopes to use a different skill set in one 9th floor office in particular.

In June, Benitez filed to run for mayor of Weber County’s largest city, a slot currently held by popular incumbent Mike Caldwell, who seeks a second term.

Benitez, a multilingual businessman and father of five, is unabashed about his love for Ogden, which he said motivates him to seek improvements in some areas.

A beautiful garden city

“I am coming from a Third World country, and in some ways Ogden is becoming like a Third World country — and I don’t like that,” Benitez said of the poverty and neglect he sees in some of the city’s neighborhoods and parks. “I want Ogden to be a beautiful and attractive ’garden city.’”

By that, Benitez referred to Ogden’s weed-filled vacant lots and unkempt residences that he believes could be beautified.

However, rather than simply pointing out problems, Benitez said he would encourage dialogue and volunteer efforts to get those jobs done.

For Caldwell’s part, he said that Ogden’s urban decay has loomed large on his radar since he took office.

“One of the big issues we have in the east-central neighborhood is that, in some of those areas, over 70 percent of the homes are rental units,” Caldwell said, pointing to the city’s “Quality Neighborhoods” initiative as an effort to use Business Depot Ogden revenues to spur home ownership and help stabilize those areas.

“In the last 3 1/2 years we’ve been able to put together almost $60 million worth of housing units in and around the downtown core,” Caldwell said. “A renter is more inclined to close the blinds and wish a problem away. If you’re a homeowner, you’re more inclined to call the police, take an active role, join a neighborhood watch program.”

Voter apathy

It galls Benitez that of Ogden’s 29,403 registered voters in 2011, only 7,165 — roughly 24 percent — cast votes in that year’s mayoral race.

“I think the minimum should be 51 percent turnout,” Benitez said. “In Third World country, I come from 35 years of dictatorship.

People don’t go to vote because they know who will be elected. They say why take the time?”

By entering the race, he said his candidacy affords voters the choice of whether to keep the same administration or opt for a new one.

Caldwell shared Benitez’ desire to boost electoral enthusiasm.

“Part of the reason we went to a hybrid vote-by-mail was that when we just had the polling locations, we did have lower turnout,” Caldwell said. “The more people you can get involved in the conversation and process, the better results you have at the end of the day.”

With vote-by-mail, Caldwell said voters receive their ballots early and can research candidates online.

“It’s such a different day and age,” Caldwell said. “You can gather a lot of different information now from the comfort of your home.”

Caldwell also pointed to the diversity council that the city organized in an effort to break down barriers and disperse information to residents who otherwise might be baffled by city policies and procedures.

Problematic panhandling

“In Third World countries, they ask for food. Here they ask for money,” Benitez said of the individuals who hold cardboard signs and seek handouts at busy intersections.

While confirming his desire to help people in need, Benitez said that he hesitates tossing a dollar their way because “I feel I am kicking their dignity.”

By helping the able-bodied get jobs, Benitez said “they can make money working, and pick up their dignity again. They can feel happy.” And for those unable to work, “we can help in other ways.”

But his overall goal would be to eliminate street begging altogether. But, as Caldwell sees it, there is no easy fix and a ban on panhandling would simply invite litigation.

“There would be a long line of cities across the U.S. that would like to outlaw panhandling in general,” Caldwell said. “But it is a form of free speech and free expression, and in America free speech is vitally important.”

Ogden’s approach, Caldwell added, has been to educate the public that giving cash to panhandlers could perpetuate their addictions and keep them in their current circumstance longer.

“The way you fight it is to make sure services are there, but you also make sure that there is safe space for people to engage in free speech,” Caldwell said.

Problems arise when panhandlers get into the roadway and interfere with traffic, he added.

“Then we have the right to go talk to (the panhandler) about not clogging up traffic and creating an unsafe environment for both himself and the driver,” Caldwell said.

Body-cams and better cop training

Caldwell was sworn in as Ogden’s mayor on Jan. 3, 2012. A day later, Ogden Police Officer Jared Francom was shot and killed while helping to serve a drug-related search warrant to a home that members of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force believed was unoccupied.

“If we had better training, I think that would not have happened,” Benitez said, adding that, “I’m not judging ... we can’t know everything about how to fix every problem. But I think better training would help a lot.”

The raid on Matthew Stewart’s home that night drew national attention and outrage. Stewart, who fatally shot Francom, wounded five other officers and sustained wounds himself, ultimately hung himself in his Weber County jail cell in May 2013.

Benitez also believes that police officers should receive higher pay and better benefits.

“I can’t understand when some officer dies in service, why they have to ask for donations to take care of the family,” Benitez said. “That is not acceptable to me.”

But Caldwell viewed the January 2012 incident as an unexpected ambush.

“Police didn’t know if that was an empty grow-house or if there was anyone in it,” Caldwell said of Stewart’s residence. “Nobody expected to see something like that.”

Describing the shootout as a deeply-felt tragedy by all involved, Caldwell said that OPD has changed some of its policies as a result.

“There’s a pre-meeting before anything goes on, they do a threat assessment, everybody wears (bullet-proof) vests and all of the other safety equipment available to them. That’s mandatory at this point,” Caldwell said.

However, body camera technology is still young and evolving, Caldwell said, and state lawmakers are still fleshing out policies regarding their purchase and use.

Hampered hikers

Benitez lamented new restrictions that private property owner Chris Peterson tries to impose on Waterfall canyon hikers.

“I want to work with him,” Benitez said. “We need to negotiate something for the community, not just for one person. And if the city could own that property, we could invest in four-season recreation there.”

A sign posted on a chain-link fence near the 29th Street trailhead warns hikers to carry ID and obtain a wristband when Peterson’s rangers are stationed in the Waterfall Creek area. Peterson also gets his message out on Facebook, informing hikers that they can be fined $100 for not carrying plastic poop bags for their dogs.

“We need to have an open discussion,” Benitez said. “We need that space. This is a freedom country — we don’t need armbands.”

Peterson owns 1,800 acres on the east side of the mountain stretching from Weber State to Ogden Canyon, Caldwell said, adding that “property owners have private property rights that are very well protected and defended in the state of Utah.”

That said, there are prescriptive easements that provide the public with access based on unrestricted trail use for over 20 years, Caldwell added, crediting Peterson for generously allowing the public to use the pathways traversing his land.

However, vandalism and litter have fouled that public-private relationship to some extent — and those are the big threats to the public’s continued access, Caldwell said.

But as far as he knows, Peterson has no standing to fine hikers for not carrying pet poop bags.

And Peterson is within his rights to post signs on his chain-link fence, Caldwell added. Earlier signs, posted at the trailhead kiosk, were quickly removed by the city because they’d been placed on public property.

Cut the mayor’s pay?

If elected, Benitez said he would immediately decrease his own pay by 20 percent, and distribute those extra funds among city council members whom he said work 20 to 25 hours per week for $12,000 to $13,000 per year.

“I applaud these people,” Benitez said of council members, “because they are real servants.”

During lean economic times, city workers weathered six years without pay increases, Caldwell said, a situation that harmed public safety personnel in particular because of how their retirement pay is structured.

Earlier this year, as city officials reviewed cost-of-living raises, Caldwell said they voted to include similar bumps in pay for the council and mayor.

“That’s the change we were comfortable with,” Caldwell said.

According to city documents, the mayor’s total annual compensation — wages plus benefits — totals $154,351. For council members, total annual compensation ranges from $14,983 to $17,510 depending on whether they hold leadership positions.

Find more information about Sebastian Benitez’ campaign online at www.sebastianbenitez.org.  

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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