Thursday, May 13, 2010

North Ogden's Beauty Pageant Battle

For decades the city of North Ogden has included a beauty pageant as part of its annual “Cherry Days” (July 4th) celebration. The pageant has been affiliated with the pageant industry that feeds into state and national contests.

Residents of two adjoining cities have been allowed to enter the pageant. Overall participation has declined in recent years. But more importantly for North Ogden citizens, the number of contestants coming from North Ogden itself has dropped significantly. Pageant winners in three of four recent years have come from neighboring cities that have paid nothing to help host the competition.

Personally, I do not care for the beauty pageant industry. It seems like a throwback to a less enlightened era. Our culture already focuses far too heavily on physical appearance. I question the value of promoting this kind of thing as a matter of public policy. While I understand cultural tradition, I do not see how a show like this improves our community’s quality of life. I would strongly discourage my daughter from participating in such exhibitions.

I know that pageant supporters bill these events as “scholarship pageants.” But if we are honest, we will admit that the quintessential elements of these spectacles are their sensually appealing factors. Without those, the pageant industry would dry up and blow away. With carnally gratifying displays intact, beauty pageants would continue even without the attachment of scholarships or other features that are added to lend respectability.

Still, I have no problem with beauty pageants as long as they are private affairs. I become concerned when my tax dollars are used to make me an unwilling supporter of these events. That has been the case in North Ogden.

Last year, the council allotted $9,600 for the pageant in this year’s budget. Over the past several months the city council has discussed the pageant and made new decisions about the expense. At its February budget retreat, the council decided to finance the pageant if at least eight contestants from North Ogden registered.

The deadline for registration was the council’s April 8 meeting. Pageant supporters signed eight participants by that date, but two dropped out. At a later council meeting in April, pageant supporters (including former contestants/winners and their mothers) showed up in force to lobby the council to fund the pageant this year. They claimed to have signed 16 participants. The council relented.

After reading some of these details in newspaper reports, it bothered me that the council had considered the $9,600 expense of taxpayer money worthwhile, even with only eight contestants. That amounts to spending $1,200 of taxpayer money per person for a fancy dress up party. “Self esteem” notwithstanding, that seems like an unbalanced taxpayer burden.

So I shot off an email to all five council members and the mayor expressing my concerns. I questioned whether there was any other budget item that transferred a sum that high to a private beneficiary for a totally nonessential service.

So far, two council members have contacted me. First I received a phone call from Wade Bigler. During our extensive chat, Mr. Bigler provided a number of details and clarifications about the matter of which I had been unaware. He followed up our discussion with an email.

Brent Taylor responded to my email with additional clarification. He included a PDF copy of the minutes of the February budget meeting, detailing the discussion of the pageant matter. Mr. Taylor’s explanation pretty much matched Mr. Bigler’s account.

I very much appreciate these two council members taking time to address my concerns. After all, $9,600 is not really a large budget item. We’re talking about roughly $2 per household per year. But when all of the ‘small’ expenditures are added up, it makes for a large chunk of the city budget. So I think it is important to see how council members address even these smaller items.

Both Mr. Bigler and Mr. Taylor feel that the pageant should be privately funded. However, Mr. Taylor felt that the city should at least partially fund the pageant for a couple of seasons so that supporters could have some lead time to develop private funding. From what I can gather, most other council members agreed with that sentiment.

However, Mr. Bigler noted the concerns about declining enrollment and winners coming from other cities. He proposed that the pageant be funded this year only if at least eight contestants from North Ogden signed up. This motion carried. But Mr. Bigler told pageant supporters that they were on their own for funding next year.

Following the council’s decision to fund the pageant, Mr. Bigler received information that caused him to suspect that pageant supporters had padded the number of contestants. After repeatedly requesting an actual list of committed contestants, the pageant manager supplied a list of only seven girls. With the nine others having evaporated, the city will not fund the pageant this year.

Mr. Bigler is insistent that pageant supporters could still run the event if they put in the effort to obtain private funding; something Mr. Bigler asserts would not be terribly difficult for them. I agree that pageant supporters should find private parties that are willing to pay for the pageant rather than lobbying the city for a share of limited taxpayer funds.

It is difficult to be an elected official with the authority to spend taxpayer money. When lobbyists come calling, the benefit of giving them a chunk of taxpayer money is very clear. With only $2 per household per year at stake, no taxpayers are going to show up to protest the transfer.

Benefits are concentrated while costs are diffused in these instances. It is easier to play the ‘good guy’ that ‘helps’ the people that are there plying you for cash. It’s difficult to be the fiscal disciplinarian that comes across as ‘mean’ and ‘stingy’ for trying to protect taxpayer interests without any assurance that taxpayers will care or even know about it.

I applaud elected officials that are willing to appear unpopular to keep government within its proper bounds. It is by doing this that we can be more certain that government will have adequate funding to handle its essential duties.

I will add updates if any council members contact me about the pageant issue.

Update: 5/19/2010
Council member Carl Turner contacted me about the pageant today. He noted that his sister won the pageant back around 1980, but that interest in the event has waned significantly since that time. Times have changed, and he thinks it’s time for the city to move on. He is not in favor of the city funding the pageant in the future.

Mr. Turner noted that he actually suggested de-funding the annual July 4th fireworks display due to the tight budget. He quipped, “I almost was tarred and feathered for saying that.”

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