Payson Mayor Bill Wright: Finding a Balance

Bill Wright Payson Mayor

Bill Wright, Payson Mayor: Finding a Balance

I wanted to have Mayor Wright on the podcast because he is the mayor of a fast-growing city in South Utah County. He has been around the community for a long, long time. As I look at all the mayors that I know, and I know a lot of mayors, Mayor Wright might be the least political guy that I know. It just seems like he is there for all the right reasons.

Early Years:

I started out by asking Mayor Bill Wright to tell me about his early years and what got him started in politics.

Mayor Wright shared, “I was born and raised in Payson. I was born in 1952 at the Payson Hospital and then shortly after that we left the state. My dad was in the Air Force, he came up and got us and I spent the next three years of my life down in Chandler, Arizona. Dad was attached to the Williams Air Force Base there.”

“Then when we came back to Payson, Dad bought his family home where he was raised from the time he was seven, and I was raised there. It is just down the street from where I’m currently living. My dad worked at Geneva Steel. In fact, my grandfather was working there and got killed there two years before I was born, and I’m named after him. He was a millwright and his nickname was Bill Wright the Millwright. And so Dad worked at Geneva Steel after he got out of the service. He spent about 37 years there. I also ended up working at Geneva Steel and spent about ten years there.”

Work Experience

Geneva Steel

Geneva Steel
Geneva Steel in 1942 courtesy of Library of Congress

“I had various jobs at Geneva Steel including a regular laborer, a Hod carrier on the brick gang, blast furnace (basically irrigating molten steel), millwright, electrician helper, and a firefighter /EMT. When I worked as a millwright, I got to know some of the people that knew my grandfather.”

EMT/Police Officer

“And then my last five years there I was a firefighter/EMT. I benefited from some training that I got here in Payson and became an EMT here and then was able to do that at the steel mill. I was a part of the Payson Ambulance Association. Then in 1980, I found myself asking to be part of the reserve, the police reserve, which I said I would never do. But I asked to be part of it and they accepted my application. Did that for six years.”

“I was associated with Payson City Police Reserve for eight years and within that eight years I was with the reserve. And then as Geneva Steel started to tail down and eventually close. Since I’d been in the reserves for six years, I figured I could become a regular police officer. Thankfully, I was able to benefit from their retraining program and became a certifiable person and in 1986 was hired by Payson City. I was lucky enough to get that. I spent the next 31 years there as a police officer, retired as a lieutenant.”

Run for Mayor

“And as I was getting ready to retire, I had a few people, not a whole bunch, but a few people who approached me and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you run for the mayor’s position?” And I literally said, ‘Why the hell would I do that?’ And they expressed the fact that I’d been around forever, I knew everybody, knew what was going on in town, and eventually they convinced me to at least try. And of course, I asked my wife if that would be okay with her and she said, ‘You bet, go ahead.’ She didn’t want me hanging around the house,I  guess. And, so I tried and was lucky enough to get elected. Now I’ve been the mayor just about three years.”

Serving as Mayor

Biggest Surprise as Mayor: Work Load

I asked Mayor Wright to tell me the biggest surprise about being the mayor.

Mayor Bill Wright said, “I was somewhat familiar with it because I’d seen it and participated somewhat from the law enforcement part. The biggest surprise for me is that although it’s listed as a part-time position, it’s a full-time job. I think the biggest surprise was how involved it was and wondering how in the world people who have got a day job, which is most of the people that have been our mayors, how they do the job. It’s a challenge to keep it up.”

Favorite Part of Being Mayor

I asked Mayor Bill Wright to share his favorite part of being the mayor.

He shared, “I like the interaction. Not only with the city employees and our staff, much the same as I liked police work. Of course, there’s the downside to that too, but working with people. The contact with people. Again, both with the staff, the employees in the city and citizens in general.”

“And there’s always the bad side of that as well, but I find that most of the time if you’re able to give good information to people they have the ability to understand. They may not agree with you, but at least they have the ability to understand.”

“Just a real quick thing, we had a power outage last night. And I understand it was a bigger one than I thought it was, it involved other cities that were close by us. I stayed out until about two in the morning and then I noticed when I got up this morning some people had made some inquiries. And knowing full well that our city offices are closed and people are really under the gun right now to get some things done, I took the opportunity to call them individually and answer their questions. In a lot of respects there were surprised that somebody called and so that kind of makes me feel good.”

Least Favorite Part of Being Mayor

I asked Mayor Wright to share his least favorite part of being a mayor.

He said, “I think as mayor the thing I like the least is that I don’t get to vote. And there are some issues that I am passionate about and sometimes having an agenda makes a bad kind of taste. But I have an agenda, but I’m willing to back off of that agenda if it can be proven to me that I’m barking up the wrong tree.”

“But I think it gets frustrating sometimes because I can’t vote. Hopefully, I can convince others with the ability I have to go to a lot of meetings and getting informed, hopefully I can convince the city council members to acquiesce and see it my way. And really and truly it’s not been that big of a problem because there have been very few situations where we’ve agreed to disagree, and sometimes when we disagree it comes around full circle and we are fine. But as long as we can disagree and still work together, which has been the case for the last three years, I think that’s a bonus.”

I shared that we have two forms of government for cities. We have a strong mayor form of government and a weak mayor form of government. Sometimes the weak mayor form of government is called a city manager form of government. Certainly, the weak mayor form of government puts a lot of the responsibilities in the hands of the city council because they’re the ones who get to vote. You have to run the meetings, you got the hard job, but they get to make all the decisions. So, it’s kind of interesting the way that weak mayor form of government works.

Mayor Bill Wright agreed with me saying, “And you know, in my humble opinion, that’s a good way to go. The other is as well. I work real closely and I know in some cities and sometimes the mayor and city manager, administrator, whatever you want to call that position, have butted heads. But I believe that the best way the mayor can have a very positive influence is to work very well with that city administrator or manager and have a very open relationship there. And obviously the mayor has to give some of those powers to the city manager, but as long as we- I have a chance to express my opinion and it’s taken seriously then I am fine with that.”

 “That’s obviously what I want to have happen and if I’m fighting with the council or fighting with the city manager then that’s counterproductive. And as you say, not that I capitulate, but that’s just a work in progress and it’s a very healthy thing to do. And I don’t have the skills that city manager has. He has some very, very important skill sets that need to be used and so I think it’s a good way to do it.”

What Sets Payson Apart

I asked Mayor Wright to share what sets Payson apart.

Mayor Bill Wright said, “What sets us apart is we have a quality of life that we want to guard and in past years maybe we’ve guarded that a little too much. We have been able to garner that hometown feeling, people feel safe here. I not only assume that, we’ve done surveys as part of our branding exercise to find out what people like and don’t like about our city.”

“Of course, we make mistakes like any other city but people like the adventure that they can be exposed to of going up the canyon. There’s five lakes and 96 miles of trails that they can hike and bike and ride horse and snowmobile.”

“And the people, not that they’re not friendly in other cities, but we’re friendly. Accepting of those that want to move here. So, in years gone by we’ve had, and I’ve talked to you about this at length, we’ve had the equestrian feel of our city and that helps us to feel like a smaller city, but as we grow we want to maintain that. So, I just think it’s a great place to live and it is just a beautiful place to enjoy.”

Rural Feel

So, Utah Valley is a metropolitan area, but I find that Payson gives off that rural feeling even though it’s a growing city. Even though you have a lot of vibrance and vitality you still get that small town feeling when you’re in Payson, Utah.

Mayor Wright agreed, saying, “And we want to keep that. We really do. And I believe we can grow and still maintain that. We have something that a lot of cities, and it’s a result of decisions made, good and bad, for the last fifty years. We’ve got a downtown that’s the center of the city that a lot of cities no longer have and we want to take advantage of that.”

“We realize that the downtown may not be the economic driver of our city, but it is the emotional center of our city and that’s just as important as economic drive. And so we want to maintain that. We’ve hired a contractor to help us attract some business there that will help maintain that.”

Vision for the Future of Payson

I asked Mayor Wright to share his vision for the future of Payson City.

Mayor Bill Wright said, “Well the vision of the future, again, is just to maintain that safety feeling and maintain the rural feeling. And sometimes rural has a bad connotation because sometimes when you say rural people may think you don’t upkeep your yards and different things like that. So, we want to beautify our city and make sure that we don’t do it too much, we don’t want to be too heavy handed on people. They have the right to use their land the way they want within certain ramifications, but we want to accent the pride in our city and just keep those attributes that we’ve got going for us. And at the same time increasing our retail prowess, attracting companies that want to be part of our community. Not just a business, but be part of our community. And us the same to them.”

“We have a business park area we are developing and it is set and ready to go. We have a lot of interest in our city. Not only in business, but in residential development. Just most recently we have been able to attract Parris RV from the Murray area. They’ll be coming to our city and we’re extremely happy for that. We’ve been working on that for pretty close to a year. And it’s culminated just recently and we’re very excited about that. Brett Parris and his wife Dori are just the salt of the earth, they’re very good people to work with and it’s just exactly what I was describing. They want to come, they don’t want just to have a business in Payson, they want to be involved in our community. So that’s a win-win.”

Salmon Supper History

Salmon Supper

I told Mayor Wright that we could not have this conversation without talking about the famous Salmon Supper Payson has each year. I asked him to tell me more about it.

Mayor Wright shared, “It was actually developed- And again, it involves my history, it was developed as a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, LDS Church, fundraiser for our ward, Park ward. Bishop Roland Lindsey established it. He had been on a mission to Hawaii and at first he wanted to do a luau as a fundraiser, but it didn’t go quite the way he had planned. So, you can call it dumb luck or inspiration or whatever you want to call, I used to call it inspiration. He suggested that we do a salmon supper and it immediately took off. So much so that many stakes and awards in the state and out wanted to duplicate that. So, we helped them but this is the only one that I know of that has survived.

“Then the financial landscape of the church changed and we no longer had to give the state a fee for maintenance. At that time it was kind of put by the wayside and it sat dormant for a couple years, and then a civic group wanted to take it over and they approached us as Park Ward to see if we could do that and we obviously said yes, we’d love to help you. We’d like to see it continue. So, they did that for a couple of years and it got too big for them to handle and so they approached the city and thankfully the city said you bet, we’ll take it over.”

“So, it’s been around for about 65 years and we’ve served up to 5000 people. As the last time that our ward took care of it, it was back in the 80’s and we served right around 3000 to 3300 people. So I think we’ve hit pretty much the level that we can physically do at 5000 people in a couple, three hours.”

“This past year with Covid we reduced to, I believe it was down to around 3500 people. And over the years we’ve developed a system that people don’t have to wait too long. Our events coordinator, Janeen Dean, took the bull by the horns and- It was a gamble, but now we have time slots that are assigned to individual people, groups of people. And so, as you say, it’s very unique and it’s one of those things that helps Payson have the uniqueness that we talked about.”

“It’s always the first Friday in August. The date may change, but the time period doesn’t. It is a good-sized serving. You get probably pretty close to at least a pound, if not more, salmon. It is roasted over a fire with, that’s one of the secrets, and basted with butter. We’ve had people that have lived in the Alaska area and Washington and Oregon that have fresh fish all the time and they’ve found out about it and they’ve planned their vacations around it and come down here year in and year out to take advantage of it.”

“So you have salmon, you have corn course, coleslaw, piece of cake, roll, and some water. The condiments that go with the salmon, lemons and tartar sauce. And we have entertainment. We didn’t have it last year, but there’s entertainment. It’s in the Memorial Park, which is a whole other story for the reason it’s called Memorial Park, but we have entertainment there and people can just come and enjoy it. This year it was kind of a novel year because of Coronavirus and we used the whole Memorial Park and spread it out, and I think that’s one of the things that we’re going to keep as a result of having to do this. It really made it more enjoyable.”

Onion Days and Scottish Festival

Payson Scottish Festival

Mayor Bill Wright also mentioned some other unique events that they have in Payson.

Mayor Wright shared, “We have the Scottish Festival, that happens the first weekend in July. And then just recently we’ve developed a golf tournament that occurs in September and October, wherever we can fit it, that helps us to show people that we are open for business and we want businesses to come and locate here and we just want to show our best foot forward. And so we’ve done that the last four years, I believe.

Mayor Bill Wright and Kevin Elmer: Frontier Marshalls

“On a personal note, myself and my singing partner Kevin Elmer have started the Western Heritage Night and we’ve done that for, it would have been the fifth year this year, but because of Covid we had to cancel it. But we plan to continue that. It’s Western music.”

I had to ask him, “Are you telling me you’re a singer?”

Mayor Wright said, “Well yeah, you’d have to hear me to see if I really am a singer, but I’m telling you I do sing. I sing Cowboy music.”

Payson has a rich Scottish tradition and is unique because the high school has a bagpipe corps. And at the Scottish Games, you’re throwing telephone poles and all sorts of old-time Scottish traditional games.

“Quite a few people attend that. I think it’s rivaling our Onion Days. And I can judge that during Onion Days we have people- I live a couple blocks from the park. During Onion Days we always have people park around our neighborhood, it’s pretty hard to find a parking space. Now with the Scottish Days that’s starting to occur. A lot of different clans come. They have the bagpipe parade. And as you mentioned, the athletic competitions.”

What Have You Learned

I asked Mayor Bill Wright to share what his biggest lessons have been.

Change is Hard

Mayor Wright shared, “I’ve learned that change is hard. And that people- I already knew that, but it’s even more ingrained. When change is proposed people are afraid of it, and sometimes for a good reason, but change is hard and things don’t go quite as fast as you would like them to do. Especially when you’re involving the government. and I believe that’s by design to a great extent. But, you know, and I’ve learned, even more so than I already knew, how hard the staff works to make those changes be the appropriate ones. Sometimes it’s not the most popular thing to do, but I think in the end we have people in the city that really want to see the city thrive and not only survive, but thrive and be a great place to live.”

Mayor Wright’s years of experience with the city has given him a unique viewpoint of the city.

Mayor Wright shared, “I think that has given me an advantage. And maybe that’s why people told me that I needed to run and I’m very grateful they did because I really do enjoy it and I hope I can continue to make a difference as time goes on.”

Running for Re-Election

I asked Mayor Wright if he was ready to announce that he is running for reelection.

He shared, “I have already said as people have queried me that I plan on running. If the people will have me again I’ll be more than happy to put my hat in the ring again.”

I was honored that he would make that announcement on Unlocking Politics with Stan Lockhart.

Importance of Getting Involved

I asked Mayor Wright if he had any other advice. He talked about the importance of getting involved in politics.

He said, “Whether you’re interested in politics as a citizen or as a participant in the city government, you need to become involved.”

“We don’t have all the answers. And sometimes we’re thinking, we’re so intent on what we believe is the right thing we miss something. And sometimes we miss it on purpose and then we can explain to those that are wondering about it, but we can’t explain if they don’t participate. And it’s a challenge, even more so than I thought.”

“Not that we don’t want to be open, it’s just really hard to get that information out to the public and we do give that information out to the public, but then the public has to pick it up and use it. And that becomes the challenge. So, that’s why I say we need more involvement. There are things that the city is going to have to do. We can’t go to the citizens with every little thing or it would be slowed down to even worse than a crawl, but there are those things that we need to reach out and get information and opinions from and then we can make a better decision and have a better community.”

My Experience Getting Involved in Government

Stan and Becky Lockhart
Stan and Becky Lockhart

When I was first married and we started having kids and we were kind of struggling financially a little bit, I felt this sense of I needed to go vote but I didn’t pay a heck of a lot of attention to what was happening in the city. Then we bought our first home and the county announced they were building a jail in our backyard. And I’m telling you, I’ve been involved in politics ever since.

 And after about a little over a year Mayor Huff, I don’t know if you ever knew Marie Huff down in Spanish Fork, but she agreed to take the jail in their industrial park there on the west side of the freeway. But up until that time it was going into my residential neighborhood. And literally I have a fence and on the other side of that fence was going to be a jail and some places where the inmates would be. And I’ve got this little family and was alarmed that I would have to have that next to me. And so, that actually is how the Lockhart family got started.

 Becky ended up serving 16 years in the legislature and I was on a city council and chairman of the Republican Party, but all of that started with a jail going in our backyard. And I think that’s the way most people are. I think you kind of go through life not paying a lot of attention and then suddenly there’s something going on that affects you and you start paying attention.

Preparing for Growth

Mayor Wright shared his own experience getting involved with politics.

Mayor Bill Wright said, “Over the years as a police officer I had that mindset but never really wanted to be the guy or on the council, but I had definite opinions about different things. So, this has been helpful for me. And I have a vision for the city, doesn’t mean it’s the only one or the best one, but it’s a vision to help this city thrive and survive and be able to manage the growth that is going to come and hit us between the eyes if we’re not ready for it. It’s not a matter of if we grow, it’s we must grow because if everybody grows around us, which they will, we’re not an island, we can’t be an island, and we’ll have all the problems that are generated by big cities and have very little, by comparison, the resources to take care of them. So, it’s a decision that’s already been made for us, we’ve just got to make sure that we do it the right way.”

I shared my experience seeing the impact of growth on our area. Most people just don’t make the connections. So, I’ve been involved in this stuff for a long, long time. But when there’s a development proposed in a city all of the neighbors that are close to it, they want to come out and complain because they don’t want the- And by the way, more traffic, more noise, more lights, it just kind of changes the nature of where you’re living and so of course they’re concerned.

I mean, everybody gets concerned with stuff like that. But what they don’t connect most of the time is that it’s our kids that are buying those homes. It’s our kids and grandkids that we want to have close to us. And so if we decide to not do, to not grow, then where are our kids going to live? Well, they’re going to be moving far away. And now that I’m a grandpa, I don’t want my grandkids far away from me. So, I think you’re right. I think we’ve got to do a better job of educating the community that if you want your kids to be able to afford to live close to where you’re at, then you’ve got to- It’s going to happen, and it’s more like what you said. It’s how you do it, not so much if.

Mayor Wright shared the challenge of ensuring they have affordable housing:

“You know, a bad word has been developed, high density projects. And in some circles that’s a bad word. But it’s not because, again, there’s the starter homes, so to speak, for our kids. But the challenge that we need to do is make sure we put them in the right places and not be overrun with them, but make sure we are attentive to them, and then spread out from there. And so that’s the key that I think we were trying to meet.”

“And the other thing is connectivity to other parts of the city, the grid system is what we’re trying to go back to. Which is what the county is doing as well. And we want to make those growth areas somewhat self-sufficient. Where they can have a walkable area and if they need to drive they can still drive. But, they don’t have to get in the car and go across town every time they need something, which would increase the gridlock, which doesn’t make it feel like it’s a home town. So, that’s the challenge that we’re going to accept and as we grow, we want to make sure we have different pods of growth and not have everything in one place.”

Final Word

I asked Mayor Wright to share his final word on the topics we had discussed.

Mayor Wright shared, “Be patient with us. Help us to understand your concerns and we would like to hear them. We can’t accommodate all of them, but be patient.”

“One of the surprises that I failed to mention is there are some good things that we need to have in our city. It kind of surprised me, I knew there might be a little bit of opposition, but something as simple as the dog park.”

“We’ve tried three different locations to put a dog park and everybody agrees we need it but not in my backyard. It reminded me when you talked about the jail, that’s replicated. And a dog park’s not a bad thing, but we’ll find a place and I think we have it figured out But there again, I’m glad those people came forward and gave us some input, as hard as it was to maybe listen to at times. But the system worked. We moved away from the three places that we were thinking about and I think we found a better place. So, I guess just be patient and be informed.”

How We View Elected Officials

I think if we learn anything it’s that our elected officials are actually just like us. And they’re not always right, but they’ve been elected to do a job and they do it the best they can. And if you give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re trying to do what’s right, then you can always have a conversation and it doesn’t have to be this polarized, conflict oriented- I think because on the national scale it’s so vicious we sometimes transfer that and say that must be what it’s like at our local level too, but it’s not.

Our elected officials truly want to represent the people of our cities and our towns.

Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned
  1. We learned a lot about Payson. There is a hometown feeling. There is a high quality of life. It is a unique place geographically. There is a lot of trails, lakes, and outdoors with a lot of places to go and things to do.
  2. Payson is a friendly town. There is a long history with equestrian and rodeo. There is a small town feeling and a downtown that is a center of activity.
  3. Mayor Wright, there is a lot of things we learned about him and some of his perceptions as he got elected Mayor, almost by surprise. He was asked to run and low and behold the people voted him in.
  4. In the last three years, his biggest surprise is that the part-time job of being a mayor is really a full-time job.
  5. What he likes the most is the interaction with employees and citizens.
  6. What he likes the least is that he doesn’t get to vote on city issues. The city council does the voting.
  7. He wants the future of Payson to be safe and rural, but to attract companies
  8. He sings cowboy music, which was a neat insight.
  9. He has learned that change is hard, but his growing city of Payson is a great place to live.
  10. We talked about his Salmon Supper. The first weekend in August you should head to Payson, Utah for their annual Salmon Supper.