One way or another, Grand County voters will be asked to choose which form of county government they want to adopt.
Gov. Gary Herbert has signed into law a complex and sprawling bill from the 2018 state legislative session that amends provisions covering the process to change a county’s form of government.
House Bill 224 requires any counties that do not have one of four approved forms of government in Utah to revise their form of government by 2020. The permitted forms include an expanded five- to seven-member council; a three-member commission; a county executive government, with an elected governing body and an elected county executive; and a council-manager government, with a council-appointed county manager.
Grand County currently has a grandfathered form of government that is not in compliance with the new law, so it must make the transition, according to Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald.
“There is no choice, barring the (Utah) Supreme Court saying something different about our county picking one of the four forms,” he told the county council during its regular meeting on Tuesday, March 20.
In particular, HB 224 prohibits nonpartisan elections, term limits and recalls of elected officials – three things that are unique in Utah to Grand County.
“The writers of the bill literally put in language forbidding the three things that make our county different in our current form of government,” Fitzgerald said.
The passage of the bill from Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, caught some local residents and county officials off guard.
Grand County resident E.J. Gore questioned how the issue had even come up, telling council members that she represents many people who are surprised and curious about state lawmakers’ actions.
“I thought we were all perfectly happy with the way things were here in Grand County,” Gore said.
The county council had been scheduled to consider a proposed resolution that would have set a special election on Nov. 6. At that time, voters would have been asked to consider whether a study committee should be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in the county’s form of government.
However, council members ultimately voted unanimously to table the proposal, after Fitzgerald informed them that a citizen’s group has filed a notice of intent with the Grand County Clerk’s Office to kick-start that process. According to Fitzgerald, the new law prohibits elected council members from initiating the process if someone else beats them to it.
“Although everyone’s been scrambling to figure out what this means, and there are certainly plenty of legal people that don’t quite know what it means – and nobody has all the answers – it does appear that the process has been initiated, and that it would be something that we should not do,” he said. “If we (had voted) on a resolution tonight to initiate a process, it may very well (have been) void and illegal.”
The citizens’ notice of intent to file the petition was signed by former county council members Lynn Jackson, Gene Ciarus and Jerry McNeely, along with Grand County Republican Party chair Jeramy Day and onetime county council candidate Manuel Torres. Christine “Cricket” E. White-Green – herself a onetime candidate for Moab City Council – notarized the document.
Day said he believes that under the current form of county government, elected leaders have not been effective in terms of addressing the community’s pressing problems, such as the need for affordable housing or upgrades to local infrastructure. At the same time, he said, the county’s officially nonpartisan stature has handicapped its ability to gain representation in the state legislature.
“The grand experiment that happened in the early 90s has not made Grand County better, in my opinion,” Day said.
“I really think that for us to go forward in the future, we need to have a reality check, and this is (it),” he added.
But Grand County Democratic Party chair Kevin Walker said he thinks the whole issue “kind of stinks.”
Majorities of county voters have endorsed the county’s form of government three times, starting with the original change in 1993, he said, and the move by active GOP leaders circumvents the electorate’s wishes.
“They’re 0 for 3 at the ballot box, and I find it frustrating that they’ve done an end run around county voters,” Walker said.
“It would be fine if these people want to run for office again and let the voters decide, but that’s not what’s happening,” he added.
Council could revisit resolution if citizen petition fails
If the citizen-led process fails due to invalid or insufficient signatures on the petition – among other possibilities – the council could choose to revisit its resolution at a later date, Fitzgerald said.
In the event that county voters don’t choose one of four mandated forms of government by 2020, he said, the current seven-member council will automatically become a three-member county commission.
“This isn’t really an option of keeping what we have,” Fitzgerald said. “This is an issue about picking one of the four, and there’s not going to be a choice in it.”
According to Fitzgerald, the review process includes a series of public meetings on the issue. The seven-member committee is required to study the various forms of government, and then come up with a transition plan, depending on which type of government is selected. At that point, the process still has to be approved and found to be legal, he said.
However, if a majority of county voters don’t like that committee’s recommendations, the process could fail – again leading to the default outcome.
“The voters could reject it and the process could stall out, and we’ll be a three-person commission in 2020,” he said.
Grand County Council vice chair Curtis Wells – a former chair of the Grand County Republican Party – said that HB 224 stems from a political conflict between citizens and elected officials in Weber County.
“The bill is driven from that context and that scenario that you can’t have elected officials with a conflict of interest or a bias involving themselves in a citizen’s process to change a form of government,” Wells said.
According to Wells, representatives in Utah County were also involved in the legislative process because they want to change their form of government.
“They’ve had an issue with one of their commissioners and they’re not happy, and they can’t recall him,” he said. “And so there’s an effort to clean up the process for them to change the form of government.”
What’s more, lawmakers sought a general tightening of the code to bring every county into compliance with state law, he said, noting that nonpartisan elections, term limits and recalls are not permitted elsewhere in Utah.
“Those are all things that the state legislature moved on from a long time ago,” he said.
There are many different interpretations of the bill, which has turned “everyone” into an amateur lawyer within the last week, he said.
“What’s clear is, is that they’re cleaning up the code and they’re saying they have four forms of government you’ve got to come into compliance with,” Wells said.
Fitzgerald agreed that the overall bill is extremely broad, and noted that portions of it do apply to other counties in the state. But he said that sections of HB 224 were clearly designed to do away with Grand County’s nonpartisan elections, term limits and recalls.
“That language was specifically geared toward Moab and Morgan County, another county that has our grandfathered form of government,” he told the Moab Sun News.
Grand County Council chair Mary McGann said she met with council administrator Ruth Dillon to discuss what the bill entails, and she left the meeting with the impression that there was still time to get together and go over the issue.
“I did jump on the wagon,” she said. “I did it because at that time, I thought that … to do so would give us the opportunity to take control of the issue, rather than someone else.”
McGann said she’s upset that some people in town knew what was going on with HB 224 before elected county officials did. Yet they still chose to move forward with their petition, she said, thereby preventing the council from deliberating on the proposed resolution.
“We would have preferred to do due diligence, write a resolution, put it in front of the county citizens and have the county council vote on it,” McGann said.
Wells, however, said he has a problem with McGann’s move to place the proposal on the council’s agenda, saying that efforts to “mitigate” elected officials from getting involved in citizen-initiated processes were a driving force behind the bill.
“You did your own amateur analysis – legal analysis – of this bill, and you pushed a resolution on this agenda, bypassing the public,” Wells said. “The public has not been aware of this, and you’re justifying that because you can do a better job than the citizens of this community in managing this situation? … I find that very, very inappropriate.”
Day asked whether citizens are answerable to the council – or vice versa – and then answered his own question.
“Last time I checked, it was a democratic republic where Mary was elected to represent us,” he said.
Enactment of HB 224 blindsides some county officials, but thrills other residents
The writers of the bill literally put in language forbidding the three things that make our county different in our current form of government.