UTOPIA may not appear on Utah cities’ ballots
Six Wasatch Front cities are reconsidering their plans for putting a question about UTOPIA on the ballot this November after being told they lack a solid legal basis for the proposed referendum.
Two weeks ago, mayors for West Valley City, Layton, Midvale, Tremonton, Brigham City and Perry announced they would give voters a say in whether the high-speed municipal network should be run by a private company in exchange for residents paying a monthly utility fee of about $20.
But state elections director Mark Thomas confirmed Tuesday that officials with the lieutenant governor’s office and several county clerks believe the proposed initiative is not explicitly allowed in state law. Arguments from the cities that Utah code also does not directly forbid such a referendum, Thomas said, do not amount to a legal authority to conduct the vote.
"Nothing stops a municipality from getting the opinion of their voters and we’re not trying to stop that," Thomas said. "We’re just trying to follow the statute as best we can."
West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow acknowledged Tuesday that cities were reviewing their strategy, but said "certainly we still want to go to the people. We want their feedback. We want to get it out there in some way."
Bigelow said city leaders are debating the option of a formal mail-in survey, possibly held around Election Day. But the exact approach and the wording, he said, are still being debated.
Even if participating city councils approved a survey, Bigelow said, "we want to treat it as a ballot and give the public every assurance that it is being handled properly and with due diligence."
Formed in 2004, UTOPIA is a fiber-optic grid managed by 11 Wasatch Front cities as an economic-development tool to deliver Internet access at speeds well above those widely available to residential and business customers through private companies such as Comcast or CenturyLink. A decade later, the system remains partially built and financially beleaguered, leaving member cities on the hook for up to $500 million in bond debt with little cash flow to pay it off.
The six cities proposing a referendum all have approved a plan by Australian investment company Macquarie Capital Group to develop a plan for finishing, operating and upgrading the grid under a 30-year contract. The Sydney-based firm’s proposal also calls for charging households in participating cities a monthly utility fee of up to $20.
Five other UTOPIA cities – Murray, Centerville, Orem, Lindon and Payson – have turned down Macquarie’s proposal and are going their own way. No specific plan has emerged among them as yet on UTOPIA’s future.