Should a study committee be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in Grand County’s form of government?
County voters will be asked to consider that question when they cast their mail-in ballots this fall in the general election.
The Grand County Council voted 4-3 on Monday, March 26, in support of a resolution that places the question on the Nov. 6 ballot. Council members Evan Clapper, Greg Halliday, Jaylyn Hawks and Mary McGann voted in favor of the resolution, while Rory Paxman, Patrick Trim and Curtis Wells opposed it.
Utah House Bill 224, which Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law on March 15, 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.
Along with Morgan County, Grand County 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. If the county fails to do so – or if a majority of voters reject the study committee process – Fitzgerald said that the county’s form of government will automatically become a three-member commission in 2020.
Council members previously tabled consideration of the resolution at their March 20 meeting, after Fitzgerald informed them that a vote to approve it could be in violation of the new law. At the time, he noted that HB 224 prohibits elected council members from initiating the ballot-question process if someone else beats them to it, and in this instance, a Republican-led citizens’ group had.
However, Fitzgerald’s office changed its position after the law firm of Parr Brown Gee & Loveless conducted an independent review of the resolution and HB 224 on the county’s behalf. McGann noted that the outside attorneys determined that the council – as a legislative body – “shall” initiate the process through a resolution.
But Wells sought further clarification of the matter from the county’s election judge.
“We had a pretty firm legal interpretation; now we have a third-party with a different legal interpretation, and as a county legislator, I feel like I’m kind of caught here,” Wells said.
Former county council member Lynn Jackson – one of five signatories on the GOP citizens’ petition – told council members that he saw no need for them to take action. Petitioners only needed 230 signatures to place the question on the ballot, he said, and they gathered 421 signatures altogether, so the process is already underway.
“We would ask you to carefully consider your actions here today,” Jackson said.
Under his reading of the bill, HB 224 simply says that a county will take action by July 1 to correct itself if its government is out of compliance with state law.
“It does not say a county legislative body will take action; it says a county will take action, so in this case, we filed a petition as citizens to take that action,” he said.
In Jackson’s eyes, HB 224 clearly says that a county legislative body may not initiate the process.
“So I would suggest you’re putting yourselves at risk by filing a resolution, for whatever reason – I suspect to negate the citizens’ petition that has been filed and is underway,” he said. “I think you need to think about that very closely.”
If the resolution is approved, he said, the citizens who filed the petition will litigate the matter.
“You can rest assured of that,” Jackson said. “… This thing’s going to end up in court one way or the other.”
But Moab resident Walt Dabney has a very different interpretation of the new law, and he believes that council members have the authority to act on the ballot question.
“Nowhere in this procedure does it say that I as a citizen, or anyone else as a citizen, can take off and go start our own petition,” Dabney said. “It says you have to do it in Morgan (County) and Grand County, Utah. (You) don’t need to take my word for it … I’m reading directly from the law; I’m not making this up.”
In sync with Utah, or China?
Grand County Republican Party chair and co-petitioner Jeramy Day said the new law’s provisions are in no way a slight against any one county in the state.
Day said that he and other petitioners saw the need for a change in Grand County’s form of government because it has been isolated for too long from the state and its lawmakers.
“I’ve seen how other governments operated within the state … and I saw that we weren’t included, and we weren’t being taken very seriously,” he said.
It’s important to recognize that no one side has control in Grand County, Day said.
“We are a very unique community, and I think one of the fears I hear is that we’re going to be like other places in Utah,” he said. “There is no way, shape or form we could ever be like another place in Utah: We’re Grand County; we have a diverse community, sure, but the community needs to have a platform in which it can participate with the other communities within the state.”
However, Castle Valley resident Michael Peck noted that HB 224 expressly prohibits three things that are unique in Utah to Grand County: nonpartisan elections, term limits and recalls of elected officials.
“(With no recall clause), that means they’re unassailable – they can’t be called on the carpet,” Peck said.
By doing away with term limits, he said, Utah finds itself in some unusual company.
“I don’t know of anywhere outside of China that did that,” he said. “It doesn’t ring very democratic that way.”
Peck also questioned how the citizens group received information about HB 224 and filed its petition ahead of the council, adding that it raises ethical concerns in his mind.
Moab resident Doug Fix urged council members to defend the rights of voters who approved the county council form of government in the early 1990s.
“Try to do it nicely at first, and point out to the legislature the obvious blunder they made, and if they don’t do it, well, then (Fitzgerald) is going to have to go to court and clarify it,” he said.
According to Fix, the state legislature passed an amendment that essentially tried to unwind everything in the county’s statute, and render it unworkable, just before the county initially adopted the change of government in 1992.
“We ignored it at the time, and when challenged by the county association of attorneys – that they were going to sue us … we said, ‘Please sue us,’ and they never did, and that’s why that’s never been challenged in 25 years,” he said. “… Nobody’s ever filed a lawsuit, because we were meticulous in following the statute at the time.”
Fix suggested that council members should not give the citizen petitioners “another thing to argue about.”
“If it’s legal, and (Fitzgerald) says it’s legal, I would let them just go ahead and run the game,” he said. “I think as it sinks in to the petitioners that the ‘heads we win, tails you lose’ approach they’ve kind of designed isn’t going to work, they’re going to lose a lot of enthusiasm for pursuing a new plan.”
Expanding on his remarks from the council’s March 20 meeting, Wells said that HB 224 aims to protect a citizen’s ability to initiate the process to change a county’s form of government.
“This action to vote on this resolution, the way I’m receiving this as a council member, is moving to the center in the event that the county is litigated from one side of this political debate,” he said. “But (it’s) creating grounds for, of course, these citizens that filed this petition to initiate the process (are) now saying that that’s being ignored, or run over the top of, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they litigate.”
Wells said the issue behind HB 224 is really not about politics: It’s about compliance with state law.
He can understand and appreciate citizens’ frustrations with the state’s prohibition of term limits and recall efforts, he said, but the fact is that the state moved on from Grand County’s optional form of government in 2000.
“We were more or less grandfathered, but this idea and narrative that this is some plan out to get Grand County just is ignoring a lot of facts,” Wells said. “There are many counties impacted by this bill, and whether you like the form of government or not, we are not an independent entity out here in the desert. We are a political subdivision of the State of Utah.”
There’s a time and place to debate the county’s form of government, Wells said.
“And let me tell you, after being in this thing for a year, I’m going to be involved in that debate, because I believe we can do a lot better than what we are now,” he said.
County council votes 4-3 to place measure on Nov. 6 ballot