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Salt Lake County auditor loses round but fights on

Published December 24, 2011 8:13 am

Courts • Hawkins vows to press lawsuit over budget duties.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

His appeal rejected by the Utah Supreme Court, Salt Lake County Auditor Greg Hawkins says he will continue his fight — either by filing more motions in 3rd District Court or by taking his case to federal court — to block the county from transferring budget duties from his office to the county mayor's.

"We'll proceed full steam ahead," he said Friday.

The high court issued an order Thursday denying Hawkins' petition.

Last week, 3rd District Judge Sandra Peuler rejected the auditor's request for a preliminary injunction. Hawkins then filed his appeal with the state Supreme Court.

The Republican auditor contends the Republican-led County Council violated state law last month, when it voted 8-1 to amend the prevailing optional plan of Salt Lake County government to make the mayor the county's budget officer.

In the decade since the optional plan took effect, the Auditor's Office has prepared a tentative budget outlook and a revenue overview for the council. At the same time, the Mayor's Office developed its own budget proposal, incorporating the auditor's revenue estimates into a spending plan that went to the council for adjustments and final approval.

Since taking office in January, Hawkins argues the mayor and council have tried to peel away parts of all four auditor divisions.

"They've also made statements on the record that their intent is to dismantle the Auditor's Office," Hawkins said Friday.

The auditor contends any such shift must go through a ballot referendum and, further, that a change in function could become effective only in January 2015 — the start of the auditor's next term in office.

"I feel like my arm is being cut off politically," Hawkins said. "They're literally like a baying wolf outside our door trying to get at us. We can't let them."

Councilman Michael Jensen, a fellow Republican, says the dispute is not personal, just a disagreement about the proper roles of government.

"It was clear to the council, it was clear to the district attorney, it was clear to the Mayor's Office," Jensen said, "that we had the authority to do what we did."

Jensen says Hawkins' claims would be accurate regarding a commission form of government, but not in the strong-mayor, council form that the county employs.

"The Supreme Court not even hearing it said basically, 'we agree with district court — you don't have a chance,' " Jensen said. "I don't think this lawsuit has any merits."

A council-requested study by the Government Finance Officers Association recommended moving the budgeting process into the Mayor's Office to improve the county's "effectiveness, efficiency and collaboration."

The leading financial staffers for the mayor and council support the switch, contending it also would allow the Auditor's Office to spend more time auditing.

In his lawsuit, Hawkins argued that the transfer was unconstitutional because it consolidated part of his office into the mayor's without a required referendum. He also maintained the change would cut his budget and take away some of his staffers.

"There's not one function of my office they haven't tried to damage or remove," Hawkins said, characterizing Democratic Mayor Peter Corroon's office as "the point of the sword." At the same time, Hawkins maintains the motive is not partisan. "There's no angst or bad feeling. It's just that we're reading the law differently."

afalk@sltrib.com

djensen@sltrib.com