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West Haven mayoral hopefuls spar over donations, development

By Tim Vandenack - | Oct 12, 2021

Photos supplied

West Haven Mayor Sharon Bolos, left, faces a challenge in city elections this year from Rob Vanderwood, right, a City Council member. Mail-in ballots should be sent to voters starting Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, and voting culminates Nov. 2, 2021.

WEST HAVEN — Growth, not surprisingly, is a looming issue among the two mayoral hopefuls in West Haven.

But in the final stretch of campaigning ahead of Election Day, it’s not the only thing. Sparring over campaign finances and the influence of donors on the candidates have also emerged as points of discussion — most notably, the involvement in the campaign of developers.

A slew of mayoral and city council posts, including the West Haven mayor’s spot, are up for grabs across Weber County in municipal elections this cycle. Mail-in ballots should start arriving in voters’ mailboxes this week and voting culminates on Nov. 2.

The dollar amounts in the West Haven campaign are fairly modest. Sharon Bolos, the incumbent, reported $2,220 in donations in the lead-up to the Aug. 10 primary. Rob Vanderwood, a member of the West Haven City Council who’s challenging her, reported $300 in donations.

Vanderwood, though, worries in particular about the influence of developers like the Northern Wasatch Association of Realtors, or NWAOR, a donor to many Northern Utah political campaigns. The NWAOR gave $1,000 to Bolos’ campaign on July 6 and she subsequently tore up the check, she said, not needing it. Records managed by the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office bear out that she didn’t hold on to the money. The paperwork shows that the $1,000 donation was ultimately deleted from the list of NWOAR donations so far for 2021 to an array of candidates because Bolos didn’t accept it.

However, she accepted donations from other developers, Vanderwood says, and that’s a concern for him. Of the $2,220 she received, $1,750 came from two people who have been involved in development in West Haven, Vanderwood said, and another $200 came from the campaign fund of Gage Froerer, a Weber County commissioner who owns a real estate agency. The NWOAR made a $270 in-kind donation of voter data files.

“If she tore up the 7/6/2021 donation from Northern Wasatch Association of Realtors stating that she didn’t need the funds, why did she accept funds from others after that time?” Vanderwood said in an email to the Standard-Examiner.

Bolos, meantime, dismissed any suggestion of undue influence from donors. She’s adamant that she doesn’t let donations sway her decision-making.

“If there were strings attached to any donation, I wouldn’t accept them. I have more integrity than that,” she told the Standard-Examiner. She will accept donations from friends, she said, but never with any specific directive from them.

The issue of campaign financing came up at an Oct. 5 forum sponsored by the Weber County League of Women Voters. Bolos said at that gathering that if she gets donations, it’s because supporters like her leadership. “People who support me support me because they think I’m a good mayor. They think I’m a good leader in the city and they want to see me continue,” she said.

Vanderwood, for his part, said his $300 in donations came from “citizens” of West Haven. None are named in his campaign report since state law only requires naming of individual donors who give more than $500.

However, he said he doesn’t take “special-interest” money and that as a candidate for City Council four years ago he turned back a donation from the NWAOR. “I just don’t want anyone to second-guess my intentions,” he said.

Development is a big issue in West Haven, and Vanderwood said at the Oct. 5 forum that he avoids donor relationships with Realtors, builders and engineers. “I just don’t believe in that type of stuff as well. I think you should avoid all manner of that because when you sit up here as a representative of the city you shouldn’t have anything to do with that,” he said.

The NWAOR is a big political donor in Northern Utah. According to its campaign finance report to the state, it made $35,130 in donations to candidates and others between April 5 and Sept. 24 this year, including the $270 in-kind donation to Bolos.

FASTEST-GROWING CITY

More generally, Bolos said her messaging while campaigning has been about the quality of life in West Haven, suggested by strong population growth. West Haven was easily the fastest-growing city in Weber County between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau records.

“My message is that we have a great place to live, great things are happening here,” Bolos said. Her leadership has helped in that regard, she claims, and she wants to continue with the efforts.

Some have grumbled about the fast pace of growth, but Bolos said city officials have tweaked rules governing development in the city’s general plan as needed to adjust to the concerns. “I think the important thing is to revisit the general plan whenever we see a need,” she said.

Vanderwood echoed that the city seems to be “on the right track” in grappling with the fast pace of development. But he maintains that the City Council has been the driving force in responding to citizen concerns on the issue.

“Let’s continue that same direction,” he said. “Really, I think we’re on the right track going forward.”

The changes council members have pursued, he said, relate to housing setbacks, lot size and buffer zones between neighborhoods of single-family homes and higher-density housing projects. The aim, broadly, is balancing the needs of those seeking more affordable housing, like apartments, and those wanting homes on larger lots.

City leaders can’t stop growth, but they can slow it down, said Vanderwood, calling for “controlled growth.”

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