Bill limiting rural counties to a 3-person commission falls short in Senate committee

(Tribune file photo) Wayne County's main tourist attraction is Capitol Reef National Park. This barn inside the park, near the campground harkens back to the area's agricultural past.

It took Blanding Republican Rep. Phil Lyman three tries to get HB257 through a House committee. He doesn’t have that luxury in the Utah Senate with the last committee meetings held Monday.

The Senate Government Operations Committee deadlocked 2-2 Monday on the bill, which would limit counties of the 5th and 6th classes — under 11,000 population — to only a three-person commission form of government with no ability to change to a different governing structure.

“It doesn’t take away their control,” Lyman said. “They still elect their county commissioners.”

He acknowledged his bill would remove options currently available to low-population counties, but he argues the change is necessary to protect existing governments from “unfriendly” attempts by outside influences to disrupt or even take over rural government.

Lyman, who represents several of Utah’s small, rural counties, described his constituents as near-universally supportive of HB257, saying current law allowing voters to initiate a governing study and ultimately approve a council form of government goes against the best interests of rural communities.

“It’s almost as if we’ve created a mechanism that can be weaponized by people who are not friendly toward good governance in these small counties,” he said, “and it’s expensive, its time consuming and it’s divisive.”

Grand County has adopted a commission form of government, which some conservatives complain is too liberal for southern Utah.

And Lorraine Miller, a Wayne County resident, pushed backed against Lyman’s description of the political dynamic in rural Utah. As a member of the Wayne County Taxpayers Association, she was part of an effort to place a governing proposition on the county’s 2018 ballot, which was ultimately rejected by voters.

She said she did not represent an outside group, and that the effort was driven by local residents.

“I am 74 years old,” Miller said. “Do I look capable of a hostile takeover?”

Most rural commissioners are elected at-large, or by the entire county electorate. And Miller said that can create a situation where longtime, established residents can shut out newer arrivals from the political process.

She said the central portions of Wayne County — adjacent to the Capitol Reef National Park — is home to retail and tourism activity that generate taxes for the area, but are outnumbered by “heritage families” in and around Loa, the county seat.

“We just think we need a voice in our county,” Miller said. “We don’t have it and we never will because the bulk of the population is in Loa.”

But Lincoln Shurtz, a lobbyist for the Utah Association of Counties, spoke in favor of the bill. If residents are displeased with their representation, he said, they should work to elect new commissioners rather than alter the form of government.

“I don’t think the Legislature does everything right,” Shurtz said, “but I don’t try to change the composition of the Legislature."

A motion to recommend the bill to the full Senate divided along partisan lines, with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing. But committee absences resulted in a tie vote, falling short of the requisite majority for the bill to move forward.

Senate procedures allow for bills to be taken up without a committee recommendation. And the Senate sponsor of HB257 is Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, the Senate majority leader and a powerful member of the chamber.