According to researchers at Harvard, democracies die when people refuse to accept the legitimacy of their rivals and try to alter the rules of the political game to benefit their own interests. The events surrounding the passage of House Bill 224, as described last week in The Times-Independent and Moab Sun News, are a textbook example of the violation of democratic norms. In one of that bill’s provisions, the state legislature specifically targeted Grand County’s longstanding form of government, which was chosen by local voters and reaffirmed twice at the polls. Before the ink on Gov. Herbert’s signature was dry, Lynn Jackson and several of his allies had filed a petition that effectively preempts efforts by our elected representatives to study and propose alternatives to what Jackson derisively called “our goofy little system” of government. As a result, his self-appointed “committee,” composed exclusively of Republican Party loyalists, will drive the political agenda. If voters in November refuse to ratify what this cabal puts before them, our county government will become a three-person commission by default.
Of the many things that are wrong with this picture, the following stand out. (1) The fact that a non-elected group was allowed, if not invited, to hijack the political process. What they were unable to achieve openly through the ballot box they are trying to accomplish stealthily, through a procedural trick. (2) The fact that the Jackson faction learned about legislative developments affecting Grand County before even our council chair was informed of them. The unseemly haste with which they sought control suggests, at the very least, that they were tipped off by political insiders. (3) The fact that the key features of Grand County’s system of representation – recall elections, term limits and nonpartisan ballots – were singled out in the legislation. Historically, these measures arose as grassroots attempts to assert control over the political process. Prohibiting them bodes ill for representative institutions in our community, potentially opening the door to official corruption, increased ideological polarization, and the perpetuation of an oligarchy out of sync with public opinion.
The only bright spot in this sorry tale may be the existence of a free press that informs citizens about assaults on their democracy.