A controversial bill that would make it easier to divide counties in Utah was discussed at an interim meeting of the Legislature this week, reopening an effort that failed to pass in the lawmaking session that ended in March.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, told the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee on Wednesday that the bill was designed with Salt Lake County in mind, which has 1.1 million people and is the state’s largest by population.

“We’re all hearing [about] the crisis of a population explosion that is expected to occur in Salt Lake County,” she said. “If you take the view of government closer to the people, then this becomes an even greater concern over time.”

But Coleman said the proposed bill had an unintended consequence of also finding some support in San Juan County, which is the largest in the state by geography but only has about 15,500 residents. Roughly a quarter of that county overlaps with tribal lands on the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. The county is majority Native American, but before a court-ordered redistricting in 2017, Native Americans had never controlled the commission or the school board.

When Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, expressed support for Coleman’s bill earlier this year, many saw it as a direct reaction to San Juan County’s election of its first majority-Navajo commission in 2018, something Lyman has denied. Like Coleman, Lyman argued that splitting the massive county would bring government closer to the people.

“I don’t call it dividing the county,” Lyman said at a Monticello town hall meeting in August. “I call it creating counties." Even though he wasn’t a sponsor, he continued, critics dubbed Coleman’s effort the “racist Phil bill.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) This graphic created in March 2019 was based on one possibility Rep. Phil Lyman proposed for dividing San Juan County.
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) This graphic created in March 2019 was based on one possibility Rep. Phil Lyman proposed for dividing San Juan County.

San Juan Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday that he opposes any attempts to divide the county and worries it could have adverse impacts on the economy of the Navajo Nation.

A University of Utah study conducted in 1996 examined a similar proposal and found that creating a southern county along the reservation boundary would economically impair Navajo Nation communities, which would end up with around one fourth of the operating capital compared to the northern county.

Coleman met with Maryboy during a visit to San Juan County in the spring and amended the bill so it would only apply to counties with populations above 31,000. She did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday to see if that provision would be kept in the bill in the next legislative session.

The current state code requires a consenting vote from both the portion of the county wishing to break off and the portion of the county that stays behind. Coleman said at the committee meeting that the bill would change the code to only require consent from residents of the new county, but it would also require the Lt. Governor’s Office conduct an economic feasibility study to make sure both the original and new counties could function as separate entities.

Lincoln Shurtz, the director of government affairs for the Utah Association of Counties (UAC), highlighted numerous criticisms of the bill at the committee meeting Wednesday.

“I applaud the effort that we’re having the conversation about self-destiny, but I don’t think this is a conversation that should be limited to that,” he said, adding that dividing Salt Lake County would be “logistically complicated” in terms of the county’s agreements with the state, the location of county assets and many other issues.

“We had a vote of our full membership,” he continued. “Our entire membership minus one county, San Juan County, which has some very unique circumstances, universally supported the effort to say we are not interested in the effort of splitting the counties.”

Maryboy said he did not make any statements to UAC to that effect. Willie Grayeyes, Maryboy’s Democratic colleague on the commission who is also a member of the Navajo Nation, said he attended a UAC conference earlier this month and the issue never came up.

“They did not ask me what my standing is regarding the issue,” Grayeyes said. “The [vote] must have been done undercover or by special interests who want to split the county. I do not support the legislation.”

Republican Commissioner Bruce Adams also told The Tribune he did not tell UAC the county supported the bill.

Contacted Thursday, Shurtz clarified that Adams had made favorable remarks about an early version of the bill at a UAC legislative policy committee meeting in the spring, but only on behalf of himself, not the entire county. The vote of member counties Shurtz was referring to was the result of a poll where participating county officials give feedback on policy proposals in their individual capacities.

“For instance, you could have the assessor in one county have a very different position from a commissioner in that county on a specific issue," Shurtz said. "So it’s not presumed that just because you’re from a county that you’re speaking on behalf of the county.”

The next legislative session begins Jan. 27, 2020.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.