Grand County is under attack by the Republican Party in Utah. House Bill 224 has been ruled constitutional, leaving us no choice but to change our form of government, even though it has been supported by county voters in three separate elections.
The State of Utah is famous for excoriating the federal government over the issue of states’ rights, outraged when it thinks it is losing control over what it sees as authority guaranteed to the states under the U.S. Constitution. It seems a tad hypocritical, then, when Utah turns around and abrogates local rights at the county level by forcing this change on Grand County. It’s difficult not to view this as a partisan issue when the state is solidly Republican, while Grand County now leans toward Democratic and progressive candidates.
House Bill 224 has four main provisions: Change the makeup of the county’s governing body to one of several forms, none of which are the voters’ preferred form; Revoke term limits; Revoke recall petitions; Return to partisan elections. The provision causing the most vocal brouhaha is the first: changing how many people sit on the county council or commission, and what their areas of responsibility cover. The other three provisions have fallen under the radar, but they may be more important than the change of form of the governing body.
Term limits prevent a cabal from coming to power and shutting out all other points of view of the electorate. It was the Republican Party that insisted on federal term limits in the 22nd Amendment proposed in 1947 because the people kept choosing Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, who was elected four times. The amendment was ratified in 1951, thus encoding what had been common practice that presidents should run for only two terms. Now it is the Utah Republican Party that wants to do away with this protection for the people on a local level.
After the 1990 Census, Utah was re-districted to enhance the power of the Republican electorate. In 2012, the Utah State Legislature further gerrymandered Utah in an ineffectual effort to defeat the lone Democrat, Jim Matheson, running for the Utah House of Representatives. Utah is known as one of the most gerrymandered states in the Union. In our case, Grand County has been gerrymandered to the point that we have not had a state representative who actually lived in Grand County since Max Young in 2000-02.
Recall petitions are the people’s last line of defense against a government that refuses to carry out the will of the electorate. Entrenched politicians can ignore the mandate of the people who elected them and, especially with no term limits, can turn the benefits of government to their cronies who support their agendas. When this becomes unbearable, the people’s only redress is to petition for a recall. This provision is central to the workings of a democracy. Without it, the people have no protection against private-interest politics.
We have become more tribal and divided in the last decade or so, and nowhere is that so evidenced as in partisan politics. Rancor on the national level has become endemic. Congress has forgotten how to work across the aisle. The days of Tip O’Neill and Everett Dirksen are gone. If the Democrats are for something, the Republicans are knee-jerk against it, regardless of the value of the proposal. The Democrats often do the same thing. The people pay the price.
A return to partisan elections has the potential to shred our social fabric. So far, here in Grand County, we’ve managed to keep our discourse civil. We’ve often been divided on issues, but have managed to maintain the small-town quality of listening respectfully to your neighbors even when you disagree. We see each other on the street, in the grocery stores, at concerts and high school sports events. It is essential that we maintain good relations with each other. The election season that’s coming at us, both locally and nationally, will test us. We have different viewpoints on how to run our country. Events are conspiring to drive us into opposing camps whether we wish it or not. Partisan elections, by definition, seek to divide us from each other. The state is requiring that we fall back into this negative view of other citizens as “the enemy.”
The state has removed the protections we deemed necessary to our governance, but we still have the choice of how to respond to this assault on local autonomy. We can let partisan politics dominate, or we can refuse to break into opposing camps that put party before policy. Utah may be a one-party state, but Grand County does not have to contort itself into that mold. If we let this attack by state Republicans divide us, we all lose.
Michaelene Pendleton is a retired mental health therapist who has lived in Moab on and off since 1954, and has seen the town through boom and bust.
“The state has removed the protections we deemed necessary to our governance, but we still have the choice of how to respond to this assault on local autonomy. We can let partisan politics dominate, or we can refuse to break into opposing camps that put party before policy. Utah may be a one-party state, but Grand County does not have to contort itself into that mold. If we let this attack by state Republicans divide us, we all lose.”