House panel rejects bill that would have allowed counties, not voters, to pick some currently elected offices

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Rep. Christine F Watkins, center, R-Price, watches a vote on the House floor with other lawmakers during a special session at the Utah Capitol on April 18, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

After a number of elected officials raised concerns that it would dilute the separation of powers, a House committee defeated a bill Tuesday that would have allowed some counties to appoint, rather than elect, key positions like auditor, clerk and treasurer.

The decision of whether these positions should be appointed ultimately would have been up to county voters, and any of Utah’s 29 county governments or their residents could have gone through a process to put the question on the ballot.

Rep. Christine Watkins, the bill’s sponsor, argued the change would help ensure more qualified people fill those offices — particularly in rural communities like hers.

“We have much smaller populations to draw from,” the Price Republican told The Salt Lake Tribune recently. “So right now, if the Democratic chair or the Republican chair goes out to find someone to run for a particular office, sometimes they can’t find someone that is qualified. They just have to find someone who wants the job.”

Watkins, who presented HB172 for a second time to the House Political Subdivisions Committee on Tuesday after it was held Feb. 20, told lawmakers that she’s heard of county officials refusing to attend required trainings or lacking the qualifications to do the sometimes highly technical jobs. And when qualified people are asked to run for these seats, they often respond that they already have a job and don’t want to have to put in the time and money to run every four years.

“I’ve heard many, many stories about a need for a change,” Watkins said after lawmakers voted to table her proposal. “Now, have I hit right on that? Maybe not, according to a lot these people. But my concern is for my constituents. Are the people that are serving them doing the best that they can?”

Public comment on Watkins’ proposal was universally opposed, with several elected officials who fill the positions that would be impacted by her proposal arguing that it would destabilize the separation of powers.

Under current state law, county officers are accountable to the public, argued Davis County Treasurer Mark Altom. Appointments could make them beholden to those who name them and have the ability to fire them, he said.

“I’ve had political pressure put on me to make changes in what happens in Davis County for political reasons,” said Altom, who is a Republican. “But I was able to withstand that because I am independently elected and my responsibilities with the Money Management Act that is enacted by the body of the Legislature allowed me to be independent and not have to bow to political pressure.”

Weber County Clerk-Auditor Ricky Hatch also opposed the bill, noting that objectivity and independence are core principles for county auditors, who act as an independent check against other elected officials. When it comes to running elections, the GOP officeholder said, it’s important that county clerks don’t feel beholden to any particular candidates to ensure they can oversee fair and impartial balloting.

Critics also raised concerns about the process by which residents could put the question of appointments to the ballot. Under Watkins’ proposal, a grass-roots group would need to gather the signatures of 3 percent of the people who had voted in the previous election.

“When you start looking at the smaller counties, Daggett County could start the process with 15 people,” said Rep. Logan Wilde, R-Croydon, who is a Morgan County rancher.

While they agreed the bill wasn’t ready to advance to the full House, several legislators said they were interested in the conversation Watkins’ proposal had spurred.

“I do not think the sky is going to fall if some of these positions are changed to appointed,” said Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorvsille, who noted that several cities have a similar model in which recorders and treasurers are held accountable and have integrity.

Watkins had tweaked the bill since its first hearing, including removing the requirement that a change to appointments would be permanent and expanding its reach to include county sheriffs and attorneys. The list originally included clerk, auditor, recorder, surveyor and assessor.

Her amendment never was adopted, with legislators and county officials arguing it still hadn’t struck the right balance and noting that allowing a county attorney to be elected would require a change to the Utah Constitution. Lawmakers ultimately recommended the bill be forwarded to interim study.

Watkins told The Tribune previously that she wouldn’t be disappointed if her bill didn’t pass and recognized it would need “a lot of work” to get where it needs to be.

“It’s about presenting it to a committee,” she said, "having a robust discussion.”