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Weber Co. Commission hopefuls spar on taxes, business growth, spending

Sunday , June 10, 2018 - 5:00 AM3 comments

OGDEN — As he stumps for a second term on the Weber County Commission, James Ebert has focused on county efforts under his leadership to spur business development.

“Our business community is feeling that they’re part of something,” said the incumbent, a former Riverdale police lieutenant from Farr West. “It’s tremendous and it’s something we haven’t felt in a long time.”

Ebert points to county-led polling of business owners, which figured in a plan unveiled earlier this year to bolster the regional economy via joint economic development efforts with Davis County. The initiative aims to lure advanced manufacturing, aerospace and other operations here and bolster Weber County’s median household income, which trails the statewide figure.

But he faces a stiff challenge in the three-man Republican primary, and another contender, Utah Rep. Gage Froerer — forgoing a chance for a seventh term in order to challenge Ebert — offers a starkly different approach. James Couts, the third Republican seeking the post, offers himself up as an alternative to the more established leaders. With no Democrats vying, the June 26 primary open only to Republican voters will, for all intents and purposes, decide the contest.

Most notably, Froerer — top vote-getter for the post in the Weber County Republican Party convention last April — blasts the incumbent as being too loose with county funds.

RELATED: Weber GOP selects nominees for commission seats, sheriff and more

Froerer, a real estate agent from Huntsville, has hammered hard on Ebert’s 2016 support for a controversial property tax hike as part of the 2017 Weber County budget, mainly to boost wages of Weber County Sheriff’s Office employees and other county workers. Frorer said he would’ve voted against the increase and instead sought areas to cut to free up funds for the pay hikes.

Froerer, too, puts a focus on economic development, though he offers a different approach. His focus would be on cutting government spending, lowering taxes and letting the private sector take the lead, not the government. “You cut taxes and get out of the way... These high taxes are killing business in Weber County,” Froerer said.

RELATED: Amid outcry, Weber commissioners approve 21 percent property tax increase

One way to save money, he said, would be scaling back the use of private contractors to aid in economic development and anti-poverty efforts, pushed by Ebert and a focus of sharp debate among county leaders. “Really, in my opinion, you start with the contracts... Absolutely, those contracts need to be looked at,” Froerer said.

Couts, noting all the heated back and forth among Ebert, Froerer and the two candidates’ supporters, paints himself as something new. He narrowly trailed Froerer in voting at the GOP convention and has the endorsement of GOP leadership.

“My thought is, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a candidate free from all that,’” said Couts, a land surveyor from Roy who’s never before held elective office. “I think voters and county residents want and deserve a fresh face in government.”

That said, he blasts Ebert for his support of the 2016 tax hike, like Froerer. Couts has signed a pledge never to vote for tax hikes, to seek a cut in property taxes to 2016 levels and to push for a reduction in the salaries of commissioners.

Beyond that, he has tough words for those slinging mud in the campaign, especially when the candidates’ families are involved — more specifically, Ebert’s wife and Froerer’s wife.

“I don’t subscribe to a lot of the accusations out there,” Couts said. “I think family is completely off limits.”

RELATED: Weber County Commissioner James Ebert files intent to seek primary ballot spot

RELATED: Utah Rep. Gage Froerer won't run again for House, to seek county spot instead

RELATED: Weber County commission race draws 2 more, bringing number of hopefuls to 4

At one forum Froerer faced a question about wife Gloria’s volunteer post as chairwoman of the board of the Weber Housing Authority, the quasi-governmental entity funded by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides housing to low- and moderate-income people. Weber County provides administrative support to the housing authority and county commissioners appoint its board members, and those board members — not county officials — oversee its management.

Froerer, in response, said if elected, his wife would step down from the housing authority post, though such action isn’t legally required. “She doesn’t want to appear to have any conflicts,” he said.

EBERT’S WIFE’S PAY HIKE

Ebert, for his part, has faced questions because of a pay hike wife Steffani — chief administrator in the Weber County Sheriff’s Office — received stemming from the property tax hike approved in 2016. He says he never lobbied for the pay hike his wife received, as suggested by Froerer.

“Why would I risk this job for something as silly as that?” Ebert said.

Froerer, though, thinks Ebert maneuvered somehow on behalf of his wife. “I don’t think there’s any question,” Froerer said.

The issue was a focus in a flurry of emails to Republican delegates ahead of the convention. Then-County Commissioner Kerry Gibson, who has endorsed Froerer, said in an April 13 email to party members that funding for Steffani Ebert’s proposed wage hike came in an unexpected and last-minute 2017 budget provision ahead of the late 2016 vote on the spending plan.

“I simply felt like putting thousands of dollars into the household of one county commissioner was wholly inappropriate and actually took money away from those very deputies that need it the most,” Gibson said in the letter, referencing parallel efforts to raise wages of Weber County Sheriff’s Office employees. He ultimately voted against the budget.

Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson wrote his own message on the issue to Republican delegates, saying he was behind the push to boost Steffani Ebert’s pay, not James Ebert. She had already been in line for a pay hike, per the 2016 budget proposal, but she reduced the size of the boost she was to get when, as the sheriff’s office administrator, she prepared pertinent paperwork for county comptrollers.

On learning of the discrepancy, Thompson took steps to boost her pay, in line with the provisions of the spending plan. He cited her many responsibilities and heavy workload. “I will not apologize for the pay of my employees. Every one of them has earned their pay and deserves it!” Thompson wrote.

Whether the email exchange swayed GOP delegates on April 14 when they met to pick nominees for the Republican primary ballot isn’t clear. But Ebert fared poorly, facing elimination in the first round of voting, though he had already secured a spot on the ballot by collecting signatures on petitions.

Froerer ultimately came out on top, generating majority support from delegates in the final round of convention voting, trailed by Couts.

WHO’S JEREMY PATTERSON?

Forums, meetings with voters and political signs haven’t been the only mechanisms used by partisans and foes of the county commission hopefuls as the campaign has unfolded.

A Facebook poster named Jeremy Patterson also got in on the act, offering up strong support for Ebert and pointed criticism for Froerer in varied posts related to the campaign. The posts may not have drawn undue attention until one May 22 exchange, when Patterson said in a post he was connected to the Ebert campaign, helping manage it.

Turns out the URL of the Patterson Facebook account — which contained very little information about the poster and is now inactive — contained the name of Ebert’s campaign manager, Barrett Anderson. Ebert was unaware of the Patterson posts, though he acknowledged they could have been coming from Anderson, saying he doesn’t spend a lot of time with social media. Anderson didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

Froerer, though, had plenty to say.

“To me it’s incomprehensible. Why would you do that?” he said, blasting the apparent use of a false identity to sound off on the campaign. “It was totally inappropriate.”

Patterson posted critical comments on Froerer’s campaign Facebook page, Froerer said, and some were so strong his team deleted them. Even so, Froerer campaign members tried, without success, to reach out to Patterson.

“He was vicious right from the start. He just continued to make malicious, false accusations,” Froerer said.

Mail-in ballots for the varied primary races have been sent to Weber County voters.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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