House panel approves ban on holding simultaneous elected offices over objections of Utahn serving in two seats

(Photo Courtesy Paul Cozzens) Paul Cozzens, a Cedar City Councilman, will now fill both that role and his new one as an Iron County Commissioner. Though the Lt. Governor's office said there is no law prohibiting a person from holding two offices at once, some residents have raised concerns about the ethics of such a move.

Paul Cozzens, a Cedar City councilman and Iron County commissioner, said an “overwhelming” number of his constituents urged him to retain his municipal seat after winning county office in November.

He described himself as a “strong fiscal conservative” and worried about the balance of the Cedar City Council if his seat was left vacant or allowed to be filled by an appointed replacement.

“It’s not like I’m running for this office again,” Cozzens said Tuesday. “I’m simply finishing the term that I was elected to serve.”

Cozzens’ comments came during a hearing of the House Government Operations Committee as members debated and ultimately approved a bill that would make explicitly illegal the kind of double duty that Cozzens has performed since assuming the county office.

Utah politicians traditionally vacate their prior seat after being elected to higher office, but SB50 would require someone to choose either an elected municipal or elected county position if elected to simultaneous roles.

Bill sponsor Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said Tuesday that he recognize the “optics” of the bill appear to be targeted at Cozzens — whose decision to hold two seats is seemingly unprecedented in modern memory. But Vickers said work on the bill began last summer before Cozzens chose to finish out his term on the City Council and is intended to address potential conflicts of interest rather than react to the experience of one Utah politician.

“This has come to kind of a consensus that this is where we should land,” Vickers said.

Cozzens, who is a Republican, said that all government leaders have conflicts, including state legislators. He also suggested that support for the bill could be fueled in part as retaliation for his efforts to withdraw from the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

“I hope that doesn’t have anything to do with their support for this bill,” he said.

The committee voted 8-1 in favor of SB50, with only Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, siding against it. Blanding previously served on the San Juan County Commission and opted to run for the state Legislature after San Juan’s district maps were ordered redrawn by the courts to address disenfranchisement of the county’s American Indian residents.

Lyman questioned why the issue of dual elected office is being raised now after more than 100 years of ambiguity in state law.

“That’s just one part of this that maybe creates more of a question in my mind than an answer,” he said.

Committee Chairman Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, said the bill is sound policy that could be extended further to include elected school board members and other officeholders.

“I don’t feel an emotional connection to this,” Knotwell said. “I don’t know any of the parties here. I think this is good policy, and it’s the right way for us to go.”

Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, criticized Cozzens’ explanation of his dual role.

“It’s disingenuous to fail to vacate an office after running for another office because you’re concerned about who would be elected after you,” she said. “That’s just the nature of democracy.”

SB50 passed the Utah Senate in a unanimous 25-0 vote earlier this month. It now goes to the full House.