New council chairman could define Salt Lake City's 2013
Council members are keeping the wraps on which one has the inside track for Tuesday's vote.
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In 2013, Salt Lake City will be shaped by many forces, both economic and political.

But where the rubber meets the road — funding, regulations and laws — the person who heads up the Salt Lake City Council could play a significant role in the coming year.

The chairman prioritizes the council's agenda — and his wish list usually gets pushed toward the top.

While it's true that most of what the council deals with are initiatives hatched in the Mayor's Office, the seven-member body can modify or negate any of those budgets, ordinances and capital improvements. Or it can simply let them languish as it has over the years with such things as historic preservation and alcohol sales.

As chairman of the City Council in 2012, Soren Simonsen pushed a dynamic agenda that succeeded in creating neighborhood pubs, as well as overhauling the city's historic preservation guidelines. He also championed the Sugar House trolley line and emphasized high-density housing downtown and in his Sugar House district.

In addition, Simonsen led council initiatives to minimize building demolitions and halt creation of surface parking lots downtown, create a neighborhood small-business zone and keep the Utah Transit Authority from doing away with the downtown free-fare zone.

On Tuesday, the council will select a new chairman. Who it will be is anyone's guess at this point — council members aren't showing their cards. However, some insiders hint that Councilmen Kyle LaMalfa and Charlie Luke, who both took office one year ago, may be vying for the spot.

The new council chairman must receive at least four votes of the seven possible. During its afternoon work session Tuesday, the council will cast secret ballots until one emerges as the new chairman.

One year ago, Councilman Luke Garrott joined LaMalfa and Charlie Luke to support Simonsen for chairman. Simonsen's stated goal was to steer the council toward creating its own agendas — rather than just voting on the mayor's initiatives — and attempting to take on the responsibility of long-term planning.

"My agenda was to give more autonomy to the council without relying on the [Becker administration's] Planning Department," Simonsen said.

Garrott is of a like mind in that he wants the council to push a policy-driven agenda, rather than simply "adjust or obstruct" the mayor's initiatives.

"The council's staff spends most of its time reviewing stuff given to us by the mayor," he said. "I'm interested in seeing our council assert its policymaking mettle."

The council chairman, however, is not all powerful. It takes at least four votes to pass an ordinance or move any initiative forward.

A good chairman will be persuasive, said Councilman Stan Penfold.

"Ideally, the chairman does check in with the body and tries to get a majority agreement," he said. "The [chairman] position is flavored by leadership. It's a council, so if the body resists, it doesn't get done."

Because the City Council is nonpartisan, there are no set voting blocs, Penfold explained. The foursome that elected Simonsen did not emerge as a bloc, either.

"There have been many 4-3 votes," Penfold said. "But they rarely break down along similar lines."

And the chairman must heed the needs of others, LaMalfa said.

No one can succeed at the chairman post by blocking people from doing what needs to get done, he said. The chairman must negotiate not only with other council members, but also with the mayor.

"The chairman is the face of the City Council," LaMalfa said. "It's important that person be charismatic and articulate the council's vision to the community."

csmart@sltrib.com