'People should vote where they live,' says lawsuit filer in Alta dispute
Home is where the heart is.
Or, maybe not. A case pending in 3rd District Court could change that.
Alta resident Guy Jordan is claiming that Alta Town Councilman Steven "Piney" Gilman is not really a resident of the tiny town. It is the first judicial challenge under a statute passed in 2010 that allows Utahns to appeal a county clerk's decision on voter eligibility. The outcome may set legal precedent for residency qualifications of those seeking to vote and to hold elective office in Alta and elsewhere.
The dispute has sparked a fierce buzz among the 215 registered voters in the town that abuts the famed ski resort.
"People should vote where they live. There is no reason that Alta should be an exception," Jordan said in an interview.
But it's not that simple, according to Gilman and other longtime denizens of Little Cottonwood Canyon who moved to the resort years ago to work and ski. Dozens of those veteran Alta hands eventually relocated to Salt Lake Valley to live and raise families, while continuing to work at Alta where some still vote.
For example, Gilman has a house near the mouth of the canyon where his wife and children live.
Mayor Tom Pollard also is among those who fit into that category. But like Gilman, he also has a place in Alta where he sometimes sleeps. And like Gilman, his driver license and tax returns identify Alta as his home.
"Guy [Jordan] has the right to do this," the mayor said of the legal challenge. But, he added, many people are angry about it.
"Piney has dedicated most of his adult life to this community," Pollard said. "People are pissed."
Gilman has been an Alta ski patrolman since 1979 and is serving his third term on the council. His re-election bid in November ended in a tie with Merebea Danforth. But Gilman won a coin toss that decided the matter.
Jordan's claim against Gilman, however, was filed in 2010 and only recently landed in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake County. Jordan originally filed a challenge of Gilman's voter status with Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. She subsequently found that Gilman met statutory requirements as an Alta resident.
Jordan then sued Swensen under the judicial review provision of the 2010 law. Gilman was enjoined in the legal action. If Jordan succeeds, Gilman would lose his council seat and be disallowed from voting in Alta elections.
Longtime Alta hand Lew Moore, who operates Alta Java, said most people who work at Alta cannot afford to live there.
"Guy Jordan is trying to eliminate all the lower-income voters from being able to vote," Moore said.
Another longtime Alta worker, Jerry Oyama, has written an "open letter" to Jordan asking him to drop the legal action against Gilman and Swensen.
"The effect of your suit, if successful, would disenfranchise many of the citizens of this town," he wrote.
Oyama said he believes Jordan will "go after" the mayor next and others who don't own houses in Alta.
"He and his wife [Barbara Jordan] have both lost elections," Oyama said. "It seems like sour grapes."
Jordan concedes that he and his wife have run unsuccessfully for office, but he said that has "no bearing" on the suit.
"I have been challenging nonresidents' right to vote for years in Alta, and those challenges have always ended up dead-ended with the town clerk or the county clerk," he said. "With the change in the election code in 2010, a judicial review of the clerk's administrative decision became possible."
A hearing date for Jordan's challenge has not been set. But the outcome of the dispute, now before Judge Tyrone Medley, will be studied carefully, said Mark Thomas, Utah's director of elections in the Lieutenant Governor's Office.
"In the Gilman situation â¦ he's got a home in the valley, his kids live in the valley. Is he really a resident of Alta?" Thomas asked. "We'd like to know the answer. This will have implications on how we interpret the statute."
But Thomas noted the Utah definition of resident is "a little squishy" because it centers on a person's intent. It raises questions: Should someone serving an LDS mission abroad still be considered a resident of his or her hometown in Utah? Is someone serving in the military outside of Utah still a resident?
"It's hard to determine what someone's intent is," Thomas said.
Gilman acknowledges he has a home outside Alta. But he says his "intent has always been to be a resident of Alta."
Gilman said he spends most of his waking hours in Alta and occasionally spends the night there.
"But the statute doesn't say anything about beds," he said. "The courts have determined that you can be a resident wherever you want to be a resident, as long as you pick one place and stick with it."