“Why the hell did we just waste a year and a bunch of people’s time and money when we could have… just put all four possibilities up before the voters and let them try to sort it out?” Walt Dabney asked at an Aug. 21 meeting of the Grand County Council. “This was already a confusing process; what you’re considering doing today, in my opinion, is going to make it more so.”
An unexpected action by the Grand County Council is now under legal challenge from three Grand County citizens in yet another lawsuit stemming from Utah House Bill 224.
The bill decreed that all Utah county governments must conform to one of four formats: a three-person commission with executive powers, an expanded commission with executive powers, a council with an elected executive official, or a council with an appointed executive official.
Grand County’s existing council form of government at the time the law was passed was not in compliance with HB 224, so a formal study committee, which included Dabney, was formed to recommend a new model. In February of this year, the study committee submitted their final recommendation: a five-person council with an appointed manager, with all seats elected at-large.
That recommendation will be on the ballot for Grand County voters this November as Proposition 10, a yes/no question on whether or not to adopt the council-manager format. But it won’t be alone.
A late-game twist
Up until the past few weeks, county leaders spoke about two options available for Grand County going forward: either the citizens vote “yes” on Proposition 10 and the county government shifts to a five-person council with an elected manager—or, the citizens vote “no” on the study committee’s recommendation and the county defaults to a three-person commission with executive powers, which HB 224 treats as the standard county government.
Based on the study committee’s interviews with over 200 Grand County citizens through several open houses and surveys, “almost no one” expressed support for a three-person commission form of government, according to Dabney.
Councilmember Curtis Wells proposed a set of actions that he said were aimed at safeguarding the county from the three-person commission default at an Aug. 18 county council meeting, which was then voted on at an Aug. 21 special meeting. The council unanimously approved amendments to the county optional plan to prohibit term limits, recall elections (except in cases of criminal misconduct), and nonpartisan elections, and also to change the language in the optional plan to identify the existing elected body as a commission, rather than a council. (“County Council votes to be a commission,” ed. Aug. 27, 2020)
Those actions put Grand County’s existing form of government into compliance with HB 224, establishing the body as a seven-member expanded commission with executive powers.
The result of the change, according to County Attorney Christina Sloan, is that if voters reject the study committee’s recommendation in November the county would not be locked into a three-member commission model.
More options, more confusion?
The council, at that point a commission, also voted to include two additional yes/no propositions on the ballot in November. The first asks if the elected body should have five members or seven members, and the second asks if some of the seats should be voted by district, or if they should all be voted at-large.
Sloan clarified what she believes the possible outcomes are: if voters accept Proposition 10, the study committee’s recommendation, then the other questions are moot and the county will adopt the five-person council-manager format with all seats at-large.
If Proposition 10 fails, the next questions will come into play, offering options to tweak the expanded commission form of government by changing the number of seats or how the districts are assigned. If all three propositions fail, the default will be the existing format under its new designation as a commission.
Dabney was indignant that the council would take such an action, diminishing the importance of the study committee’s months of research and work.
Dabney is also worried the county’s actions might not be legal. If voters reject Proposition 10 under the impression that the county’s existing form of government can remain, and that is later deemed illegal by a court of law, Grand County would wind up with the least popular of four options.
“If what you’re doing today is not legal, and the study committee is voted down, then Grand County, after nearly 30 years, is going to be going back to a three-person commission,” said Dabney.
“Making these changes now will confuse the ballot,” agreed Judy Carmichael, another study committee member, in an email to the council.
Councilmember Greg Halliday was the sole vote in opposition to the measure adding questions to the ballot.
“My only concern is that doing this is going to create a little more confusion amongst the voters,” he said.
Members of the study committee and a former Grand County administrator have filed a legal complaint in the seventh district court, asking for a court order prohibiting the county council from changing their form of government through what the complaint calls “clarifications” and also from including the two new proposed questions on the ballot regarding potential forms of government other than the one recommended by an appointed study committee.
“Failure to enjoin the County would lead to a violation of voters’ rights in Grand County,” reads the complaint, filed by Stephen Stocks, who is representing plaintiffs Ruth Dillon, Marcy Clokey-Till, and Elizabeth Tubbs in the lawsuit.
Dillon is the former Grand County administrator; Tubbs is the chair of the Grand County Emergency Medical Services Special Service District board and a former county councilmember; Clokey-Till and Stocks were both members of the change-in-form-of-government study committee.
The suit claims that the county’s recent vote to rename the county council as a commission amounts to a change in form of government, an action that legally must be voted on by citizens. In addition, the complaint claims that the study committee’s recommendation is an ongoing process to change the county’s form of government, and only a single such process may legally occur at one time.
The County attorney said she is confident that the actions are not only lawful but will give Grand County voters greater choice about our future form of government.
Sloan’s legal memo on the issue notes that substantive changes to government are defined as changes to the size and makeup of the legislative body, the redistribution of executive and legislative powers between branches of government, or changing the status of executive or legislative officials as full-time or part-time.
In Sloan’s interpretation, the county’s actions do none of these. She also noted that the whole process raises constitutional issues about a county’s right to choose their own system of governance.
The county has requested that the court dismiss the case as lacking legal merit; as of press time, no decision had been made regarding that request.
In the meantime, ballots bearing the two new questions, labeled Propositions 16 and 17, are already being printed and are scheduled to be mailed to voters before the hearing date to meet election deadlines.
If the county loses the case, Sloan said, they might have time to reprint ballots without those two propositions and mail new ones out to most Grand County voters.
Sloan expressed confidence in her legal analysis, however.
“We’re going to win this for sure,” Sloan said of the case. “It’s frustrating to be spending so much time on it.”
The adopted amendments and potential future changes, Sloan said, do not affect candidates currently running for county office. Whatever the outcome of the case or the election, Grand County’s government will not immediately switch to a new form; there will be a transition period of two years.
A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 29.
With Election Day on the horizon, change-in-form-of-government issue gets murky
“It’s really hard to fathom that these plaintiffs want to limit meaningful choice for this community.”
– Christina Sloan