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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

Just call this hippie surfer 'your honor'

January 28, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

PARK CITY, Utah — It's been four years since he was first elected to the top city post here. But every morning, Dana Williams still wakes up and thinks to himself, "I'm the freakin' mayor! Is this the coolest thing in the world?"

Apparently it is.

Especially when the world descends on this town of 9,000 each January for the Sundance Film Festival, swelling the population to nearly 60,000 over 10 days. Robert Redford, Sundance's founder, is the man people think of when they think of the festival, but among the locals, there is no mistaking the man who really represents the spirit of this town. While Redford operates at a remove, Williams -- who also is blond and weathered with piercing blue eyes -- can't walk down Main Street without being stopped, hugged or teased every few steps.

"It's amazing what happens when you return people's phone calls," he says.

In Java Cow, a Main Street cafe, on Thursday morning, he bumps into the local Catholic priest, the Rev. Robert Bussen. "He rocks," the priest says of the mayor. Both wear earrings.

A farmer-turned-real estate agent who endorses slow growth and the preservation of open space, Williams has brought a breath of spontaneity to city governance and a deep urge to retain the funky aesthetic of a place that, increasingly, is a playground for affluent tourists and second-home owners.

"I'd say the biggest thing that separates us from other resorts is that ski slope workers, housekeepers and waiters live here," says Williams, a father of two whose wife works at a local Banana Republic. "They don't live 30 miles downstream."

Williams' innovations have been both large and small. He spearheaded a reorganization of city government -- making a point to hire more women and flattening a pyramid organizational chart to spread responsibility around. He got rid of the gavel during City Council meetings -- too macho -- and replaced it with, as he puts it, "a really cool Chinese bell." He plays guitar, mandolin and harmonica and frequently performs with his rock band, the Motherlode Canyon Band, often to raise money for some of the 120 nonprofit groups in town. (They're playing a gig tonight on Main Street.)

Nan Chalat-Noaker, editor of the Park Record, says the paper tries to keep the mayor's feet to the fire on issues like housing, but, she adds, "I have a great deal of respect for him.... He likes to play the Grateful Dead character, but he's quite smart and maybe not as loose as he appears."

One of the mayor's close friends is Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a progressive Democrat in an overwhelmingly conservative town. Back around 1999, Anderson urged his friend to run for mayor. "He was a bit reluctant because he said he didn't want to have to make compromises. I told him, 'You don't have to make compromises. Just know that you'll lose a few along the way and know that you'll have to live with that.'

"I think Dana has distinguished himself in ... not letting developers have their way as they did for so many years in the Park City area."

That first campaign was rough -- at least for Williams. Each side ended up spending a then-unheard-of sum of around $35,000. His kids would sometimes tell him not to read the paper. "I had a Buddhist CPA who was part of my campaign committee, and she'd call me every day and say, 'You're the duck. Just be the duck. Let it flow off your back.' "

His opponent's camp ran an ad saying, "We like Dana ... but" (and went on to declare his inexperience a liability). "Then we'd run ads from waitresses saying, 'We like Dana's butt.' We're a fun, funky town and we need to acknowledge that."

A Westwood native and self-described "hippie surfer" who graduated from University High School in 1973, Williams was a Vietnam war protester (though too young to be drafted) whose involvement with an unauthorized student newspaper -- the Red Tide -- got him into trouble at school. To this day, he keeps a copy of Mao Tse-tung's Little Red Book in his office, which delighted the mayor of Beijing during his visit to the 2002 Winter Olympics here.

Williams' family first came to Park City as summer visitors in 1964, after his father, a movie and music insurance executive, had come to visit a movie set. "You've got to come and see this ghost town," a friend told him, and very soon after he plopped down $850 for a two-bedroom condo in the Treasure Inn on Main Street (current home of SlamDance, the alternative film festival). At the time, said Williams, "80% of Main Street was boarded up. And the other 20% was bars."

After college he moved to Utah because he wanted to "you know, like, farm." A horticulture major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he eventually became a Summit County soil scientist and in 1986 was named the county's Farmer of the Year for his work designing sprinkler and gravity flow systems.

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