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Mayoral forum organized by private citizen touches on principles, includes direct questioning

By Rob Nielsen - | Aug 3, 2023

Rob Nielsen, Standard-Examiner

Te Anu Tonga, far right, leads a forum for Ogden mayoral candidates Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

WASHINGTON TERRACE — Many candidate forums are sponsored and organized by civic groups, political parties and other organized interests. But Te Anu Tonga took matters into her own hands by hosting a debate/forum with Ogden mayoral candidates Wednesday evening at the Pleasant Valley Branch of the Weber County Library System.

“Preparing for tonight has been a struggle for me, not because I’m scared or intimidated, but because I just want to do our country right,” she said. “I have no party affiliation. I’m not affiliated with any group or organization. I’m simply the favorite auntie, best dishwasher in my family. Those are my credentials, and my hope tonight was to invite other ordinary and average citizens to step up to the plate and host your own civic engagements and to read our Constitution regularly and have those discussions with your family, because civics are a family affair.”

In the spirit of civics being a family affair, Tonga noted that she was being assisted by her siblings and niece in running the forum.

Wednesday’s forum featured all seven Ogden mayoral candidates, including Ben Nadolski, Taylor Knuth, Angel Castillo, Oscar Mata, Jon Greiner, Bart Blair and Chris Barragan. In a break from other similar forums, candidates faced the potential of receiving questions posed to all, some or even just one of them. Tonga said the format and many of the questions were based off of answers given at previous forums during the election cycle.

Role of government and the citizen

One question posed to all of the candidates asked their view on what the role of government and the citizen were in a civic setting.

Mata said government, especially at the municipal level, should be responsive.

“I know a lot of times during campaign season, we focus a lot on federal races, but the average citizen is going to interact with their local government more than they will the White House or their senator,” he said. “The role of government is … to make sure that everything is operating and functioning, but I feel we can take it a step further and ensure that government is responsive to the citizens and (their) needs. I think we can do that in Ogden City.”

He said citizens’ role is to be active as well.

“We have so many folks in our community that have stepped up and taken on active roles in their community to help better their community,” he said. “I think there’s a real opportunity here in Ogden to have a great partnership with that active citizenry and a government that is focused on those citizens.”

Barragan said citizens and government go hand in hand.

“The government is the groundwork of a collective of people to make sure that everything moves smoothly,” he said. “The citizens are the people that go and find all the faults in the plan and be vocal about it.

“When we’re talking about the roles of the two, it kind of feels a little bit like the chicken and the egg. It feels like, ‘Hey, we’re establishing this, but we’re in control of this.’ The time that we decide to not keep our eye on the ball, we decide not to be focused on what we need to do for the betterment of the whole, that’s when we start to see flaws in our government. There are very clear ways that we can do that better, and we can do that worse.”

The City Council

Some questions were only asked of a handful of candidates, at least initially.

In one question, all of the candidates except for Blair and Nadolski were asked a yes or no question — “Do you think that (Blair and Nadolski) upheld the proper role of government while on the City Council? If no, please explain why.”

Each candidate answered yes except for Castillo.

“The City Council members were elected to represent the people and champion the people of their districts,” she said. “There is a severe power imbalance currently on the administrative side and Utah state code says that the city council may define the rules.”

She said that there are issues in which the council ought to be more assertive.

“The City Council could, and in my opinion should, throttle what the administration is doing, specifically with the wildlife rehabilitation center and giving away property that someone was willing to pay $1.9 million for,” she said.

Both council members currently running for mayor were given an opportunity for rebuttal to Castillo.

Blair said he disagreed with Castillo’s assessment.

“The City Council has acted honorably as its role in government,” Blair said.

He added that Castillo misrepresented the examples she gave.

“The wildlife rehabilitation center, that is the mayor’s function,” he said. “The City Council does not have a role in that function the way it is right now. As far as the other property, I just don’t agree with that.”

During his rebuttal, Nadolski, whose mother was once a public official, said he learned some important lessons from her.

“I’m reminded of the story I shared earlier about being a young child, reading the front page of the paper and seeing my mom’s name — often times for good, sometimes not so good,” he said. “I remember the lesson she taught me was the one I shared earlier, ‘You’ll never make an impact if your goal is to make everyone happy.’ She taught me to rely on my own conscience and my own heart. That doesn’t mean that you go along to get along, but it does mean you listen to your own instincts. You listen to your heart and your own experiences and what you believe to be right.”

He added that he feels the board and his fellow council members have acted appropriately.

“We’ve been leading as a council and I’ve seen us have disagreements, and it’s OK to disagree,” he said. “I do think there’s challenges when we’re disagreeable about disagreeing. But 99% of the time, I’ve seen this council — including Bart — lead with grace.”

Direct questions

Throughout the evening, candidates also fielded direct questions that were only asked of them based on previous answers in other forums.

Knuth was asked about upholding a law that may conflict with a personal principle and offered some of his personal experiences.

“For most of my life, I was not allowed to marry the person who I ended up marrying because of the law — because two people of the same sex gender could not marry each other in this country,” he said. “I had to go to California to get married to the love of my life right here in Ogden.”

He said it’s a perfect example of where personal principles conflicted with the law.

“I think about if I were a judge or I think about if I was a county clerk signing marriage licenses, what upholding that law would mean,” he said. “That is an example of injustice. We can observe injustices that are written into our code while also being true to our principles.”

Meanwhile, Greiner — who once served as Ogden’s chief of police — was asked about whether control is a justified means for order and the principles he was upholding.

“Every officer of the City of Ogden, from the mayor, the police chief to most of the other departments, swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” he said. “It is the basis and starting point for all of us. We have enumerated rights and unenumerated rights. … If the role of the citizen is to abide by the laws, then the legislature passes laws on tickets. They pass laws on your local ordinances.”

The primary election is set for Sept. 5.


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