House committee deadlocks on bill that tells rural counties what kind of government to have

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is seated at his desk on the House floor, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. The former San Juan County commissioner is pushing legislation that would give small, rural counties

Utah’s least populated counties would be limited to only the commission form of government under a bill that stalled twice before a House committee this week.

Current law permits county voters to choose either a commission- or council-based government. But Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said the governance options of rural areas must be restricted to protect against “hostile takeovers” by environmental groups and new residents with a preservationist agenda.

“A group could get a petition started and basically disrupt the county,” Lyman said.

Lyman presented his bill, HB257, for the second time on Friday to the House Political Subdivisions Committee, which ultimately failed to advance the legislation to the full House on a split 5-5 vote. An earlier hearing resulted in the committee voting unanimously to hold the bill.

While Lyman’s first presentation focused on the perceived meddling in rural county affairs by groups like The Wilderness Society and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, his second pitch to the committee centered around counties’ legislative and executive powers.

Those powers are jointly held by a county’s commission, but separated between a county’s council and its county manager or mayor.

“When you divide that in a small county it leads to problems and issues and expenses and dysfunction that most of the small counties don’t want to have to deal with,” Lyman said.

Rep. Elizabeth Weight, asked Lyman to explain his argument that counties have changes forced on them, suggesting the bill is opposition to population growth in the state by dividing longtime residents and new arrivals into categories of “us” and “them.”

“We’re talking about voters who reside in the counties," Weight, D-West Valley City, said.

Lyman previously served on the San Juan County Commission but left that post for the Legislature after a court-ordered redistricting and special election that led to the county’s first Navajo and Democrat-controlled commission. Lyman, who was a vocal critic of the Bears Ears National Monument designation, said the bill is favorable to growth by mitigating out-of-state, conservationist political agendas.

“The desire of the county is to be functional and to have growth and to have good governance,” Lyman said. “Not everybody shares that objective in these small counties.”

While the previous hearing included comments from Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock in support of the legislation, public comment during Friday’s hearing was universally opposed, with a number of individuals from Morgan and Tooele counties asking that lawmakers reject the bill and preserve local autonomy.

“Don’t tell [counties] what they have to do,” said Roland Haslam, Morgan County Council chairman. “Don’t tie their hands. Let them decide how they want to function.”

And Erik Gumbrecht, who served on a committee studying governance models for Tooele County, said the threat of disruptive political agendas is irrelevant to the form of a county’s government.

“Simply taking away the council option from citizens does not resolve the situation of outside influence,” Gumbrecht said.

Rep. Logan Wilde, R-Croyden, said the committee discussion had gone “down a rabbit hole.” He said rural counties have fewer residents than urban cities, and staffing a government administration can be challenging.

“I think the three-man commission works really good for them,” Wilde said.

The five representatives who voted in favor of moving HB257 to the full House were Republicans. Two other Republicans, the committee’s chairman and vice-chairman, joined the panel’s three Democratic members in opposing the legislation.

“I don’t feel comfortable removing the options of the people that live in those counties,” said Rep. Marie Poulsen, D-Cottonwood Heights.