The Grand County League of Women Voters (GCLWV) hosted a meeting at Star Hall on Monday, March 14, to discuss the new law recently passed by the Utah State Legislature. House Bill 224 amends the process Utah counties must use if they wish to change their form of government. More relevant to Grand County, the bill also dictates that all Utah counties must choose one of four forms of county government — of which Grand County’s current county council system is not one.
The passage of the bill has taken many Moab citizens by surprise. Citizens’ letters to the editor have expressed tension between those in favor of a new form of government, and those who are displeased, or even outraged, at the mandate to change the current system. The meeting at Star Hall was not organized as an outlet for these tensions, but as an informative session outlining the current structure of Grand County’s government, how it deviates from the requirements of HB 224, the defining features of the four now-legal forms of county government in Utah, and the process for choosing one of the four options.
Dozens of Grand County citizens were greeted with handouts in the Star Hall entryway before seating themselves in the auditorium. GCLWV member Carey Dabney emceed the event, introducing three speakers. The first was former Grand County Council member and county clerk candidate Chris Baird, who summarized the county’s current form of government and compared it to the four options allowed by HB 224. Grand County operates under a seven-member council. Five of the members are elected by district, and two are elected at-large. There is no delegated executive official.
“One of the big issues that we’ve had with this particular form of government over the years,” said Baird, “is that the function of the county executive has never been explicitly specified. So, it’s kind of generally been assumed over the years that our county executive is the county council, in similar fashion to an expanded county commission [one of the forms of government allowed by HB 224].”
Currently, documents that require a signature from the “chief administrative officer” or the “chief executive officer” are signed by the county council chairperson. House Bill 224 requires that executive powers be expressly assigned to an official or to a body. This is one of the major changes that Grand County will have to make. However, it may not turn out to be a drastic change in practice, as two of the available forms under the new law invest the legislative body with executive powers, in similar fashion to how the county council operates now.
SEPARATION OF POWERS IN COUNTY GOVERNMENT
The next speaker was Gavin Anderson, deputy district attorney for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. Anderson has served in county government for decades. “I’m one of those kind of government-nerdy guys who really enjoyed seventh grade civics, even though I didn’t get a very good grade,” he said, as he took the podium and introduced himself.
He explained the four options of government available under HB 224. The first option, the county commission, has a three-member legislative commission that also holds executive powers. The second form is the expanded county commission, which is a five- or seven-member legislative commission, that also holds executive powers.
The third form separates the legislative and executive branches. It’s called the elected executive/council, which, as suggested in the name, has an elected executive (who might be called the county mayor), as well as an elected council that serves the legislative function of government. The fourth option provided by HB 224, the council/manager form, has an elected council who serve as the legislature, and who also appoint an executive official, called the county manager.
The significant difference between the elected executive and the appointed executive is that the former has the power of veto over the council; the latter does not. In case of an executive veto, the council has the power to override that veto with a super-majority vote.
Within each of these forms of government, there are subsets of limited options regarding how many members are in the legislative body, whether they are elected by district or at-large, the length of terms served, and whether to consolidate the duties and responsibilities of other elected officials, such as county surveyor, county clerk and county auditor.
After outlining the options, Anderson referred to his own experience in county government to advise the audience on what might work best for Grand County.
“Let me start with kind of a theme,” he said. “The theme would be good news and bad news. The bad news is — you always say the bad news first — there is no perfect form of county government, either for counties generally, or for Grand County. But, the good news is, there’s also no terrible form of government for Grand County, or any other county. All the options can, and will, work well.”
“But in any options and all of those options,” Anderson said, “the county governing body is still going to make decisions you don’t like, and maybe make decisions you do like, and nothing in this world, or bill, is going to change that.”
With this bracing advice, Anderson described the legislative and executive powers of government and offered insight into the advantages and disadvantages of separating those powers or consolidating them into one body.
“If you remember from seventh grade civics class — what are the two functions of a legislative body?” Anderson asked. “Number one, make laws — in the case of a county, those laws are called ordinances— and to manage the purse … that means setting the level of taxes, levying taxes, establishing fees and adopting a county budget.”
The executive, meanwhile, carries out and enforces the programs and policies set by the legislature.
“How big a deal is separation of powers and checks and balances in county government?” Anderson asked. “I would say, and this may be kind of blasphemous — I would say it’s not too big a deal in county government.”
Anderson explained that the Utah State Legislature provides a “vertical” check and balance on the county government, by tightly defining the powers of the county. Independently elected officials, such as the chief of police or the county attorney, provide a “horizontal” check on the county governing body.
Anderson served for 20 years on a county governing body formatted with both legislative and executive powers assigned to an elected body, and for another 20 years after the form was changed to separate legislative and executive powers. His experience gives him insight to compare the two approaches.
“Separation of powers in general is both a pro and a con, in that it is inefficient,” Anderson said. “It’s a pro because there are several layers of approval, and it keeps one branch from getting too strong and taking over the other branch. How is it a disadvantage? It’s inefficient. It can slow things down — slow down the resolution of sometimes very important problems.”
Anderson noted some other disadvantages of separating the two powers. That arrangement can result in a lot of time spent discussing whether certain duties belong to the legislative or executive branch. It can also reduce the transparency of county government, if executive tasks are being completed by an individual in an office instead of an open meeting.
Anderson also admitted that when the council and executive bodies were separate, the county council was left with little to do, and the body was also prone to shirk ownership of county department and programs, more so than when the legislative body was also responsible for executive tasks.
Aside from this major decision of whether to combine or separate the legislative and executive branches, Grand County must give up three features of its current government. There will be no more term limits because the new law allows that elected officials will be able to run for as many terms in a row as they wish. There will be no more recalls, except in case of wrongdoing: high crimes, misdemeanors, or malfeasance in office.
And, there will be no more nonpartisan elections.
Anderson gently lamented this aspect of HB 224, and said, “I rather think nonpartisan elections makes sense, especially in local government.” This remark triggered a round of applause from the audience.
“You don’t have to convince me,” he responded, “you have to convince the Utah State Legislature.”
He suggested a slogan for a hypothetical campaign to retain nonpartisan elections: “Potholes don’t have ‘R’s or ‘D’s in them.”
The third and final speaker of the evening was Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald described how the county must go about changing its form of government, and also emphasized that the change must happen.
Some local voices have questioned whether HB 224 is valid under the Utah States Constitution. Fitzgerald addressed these concerns.
“I sent that issue out to a very sophisticated law firm for an independent review,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to accuse the attorney’s office of having any political influence on it. The firm came back and said that they believe it is constitutional … it would be a waste of taxpayer money to bring that lawsuit. So for anyone in the county that’s thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll just find it unconstitutional and forget about this whole change of government,’ I think you can put that aside, and think about being proactive about what this next form is going to look like.”
The bill states that the county must take action toward conforming its government to the new rules by July 1.
The first step is deciding whether to create a study committee. If created, the committee would research, discuss and suggest to the public one of the four forms. If the committee is not created, then the government form will default to the three-member commission form of government. The resolution to create the study committee will appear on the ballot in November.
“I think the citizens really should say yes to that, at this point,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only do they have to choose the form, they have to come up with the crazy nuts and bolts of how to transition [the county government], from where we are today, to that next form, which is probably the hardest piece.”
If the citizens approve the study committee, they will have the option to accept or reject the proposal produced by that committee. If they reject it, the government will default to the three-person commission form, and the citizens will have a chance to change the form of government again after four years.
While HB 224 has caused some turbulence in local politics, groups like the League of Women Voters are taking steps to unravel the confusion and clarify the way forward.
“Anger isn’t an agenda,” said Anderson, in response to a question about how to mitigate bickering between branches of government. He advised that local governments work best when all participants maintain open and considerate communication.
League of Women Voters’ informative meeting explains county changes
“Not only do [the citizens] have to choose the form, they have to come up with the crazy nuts and bolts of how to transition [the county government], from where we are today, to that next form, which is probably the hardest piece.”
– Andrew Fitzgerald