Paul Cozzens promised he would resign his seat on the Cedar City Council if he won his campaign to be an Iron County commissioner.
But less than five minutes into what would have been one of his last City Council meetings, he made the surprising announcement that he planned to keep both seats — an unprecedented decision that has divided community members and led one state lawmaker to file a bill that would prevent others from holding multiple elected local government posts at once.
“I have been approached by an overwhelming number of constituents asking me to stay on,” Cozzens told the crowd at the council’s Dec. 12 meeting. “I am, and will always be, a strong fiscal conservative. Although I sometimes feel I am a ‘lone voice,’ these constituents have told me that they feel it is necessary to have such a voice and balance on the council.”
Cozzens, who has one more year in his second term on the City Council, opposed recent moves by his colleagues to build a $1.5 million animal shelter and replace rather than renovate a structure at the city’s Bicentennial Park. After those decisions, he said he felt it was his duty to stay on the council to ensure tax dollars weren’t “wasted.”
To head off criticism that he had made the decision for financial gain, Cozzens proceeded to hand checks for equal portions of his $12,000 salary to four groups: Canyon Creek Women’s Crisis Center, the Family Support Center, the Iron County Children’s Justice Center and the Iron County Care and Share.
“I love serving but I knew that there were going to be a handful of people who would criticize me saying I was doing it just for the money,” Cozzens told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So rather than deal with that, I just wanted to come out ahead of it and say, ‘Look, I’ll donate my time, I’m donating my money and I’ll finish out my term.’”
Justin Lee, director of elections in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, said there’s no law that prevents someone from serving in two public offices at the same time. But he acknowledged that the move is “certainly unusual.”
“I’m not aware of anything like this where someone has tried to be on a city council and a commission,” he said.
After the council meeting, Cozzens posted the same statement he’d read aloud to his public Facebook page, where he was met with a large degree of support.
“We need you,” one wrote.
“This was the right thing to do,” another said.
But other residents have expressed concern that Cozzens’ presence on two governmental entities puts him in a unique position of power that constitutes an unethical conflict of interest.
“How can you protect city taxpayer funds when you’re also obligated to protect county taxpayer funds?” asked Carter Wilkey, a Cedar City resident who noted that the city and county “don’t always get along.”
“As a taxpayer, it’s like, this is a lot of power in one guy’s hand,” he said.
In a letter to The St. George Spectrum & Daily News, Cedar City resident Fred C. Adams also raised concerns about a conflict of interest and wondered if the county attorney and city attorney would need to be present at the other government agency’s meetings from now on to ensure their own interests are protected.
“The cost of these two attorneys will make a large impact on city and county budgets,” he wrote. “Are Mr. Cozzens [sic] followers willing to pick up this increase? Or, perhaps, Mr. Cozzens will cover these additional costs in order to continue his legal, but morally wrong decision.”
Alma Adams, a third-term county commissioner, said there are “mixed emotions in the community” about Cozzens’ decision. But he said there’s no doubt the new commissioner will have to recuse himself from certain conversations, including those about annexations of county property and of any business between the two governmental bodies.
“It is uncomfortable in some situations,” Adams said.
Cozzens told The Tribune he intends to recuse himself when necessary but doesn’t anticipate those issues will come up frequently or interfere with his performance.
“I’m a hard worker,” he said. “I get things done. And you know, I’m passionate about what I do and I knew there was going to be a little bit of conflict because of this, but I chose to honor my constituents and continue to be a balance for my final year on the council.”
Cozzens’ deviation from this norm appears to have inspired a new effort to codify that convention into law.
Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, has filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that, if approved, would keep an individual from serving as a member of the governing body of a municipality at the same time he or she is a member of a county commission.
Vickers did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.