Gehrke: Salt Lake and Utah counties should question whether to remain in the statewide association that tilts toward rural interests

Robert Gehrke

As the two largest counties in the state, Salt Lake and Utah are also the largest financial supporters of the Utah Association of Counties, created to provide a unified voice for the state’s 29 counties.

But long-simmering frustrations with the way it is run have led to those two counties refusing to go along with a sharp increase in dues and contributed to the ouster Tuesday of the organization’s chief executive officer, Adam Trupp, who is walking away with a healthy severance package.

Salt Lake County has already paid more than $260,000 in dues to UAC, but is withholding more than $60,000 — a sharp increase over the prior year’s assessment — while county officials decide if they have enough sway over the group’s policy decisions.

Likewise, Utah County has withheld all of its $212,000 in dues — an increase of $44,000 over last year.

Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee proposed a resolution that was adopted at a recent UAC board meeting to create a subcommittee to look at whether counties should have “weighted” votes when it comes to formulating the association’s agenda. Essentially, the big counties want more power, fearing that rural voices are drowning out the more populous counties.

For context, some rural counties pay as little as $14,000 a year for UAC membership.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said, in some areas, her county’s contributions are beyond monetary — offering legal expertise from the district attorney’s office that smaller counties don’t have, for example — without much benefit.

When it comes to lobbying the Utah Legislature, however, there is value in unity.

Salt Lake County has eight contract lobbyists, including some of the most prominent names at the Capitol. Still, Wilson says, “when we can go into the Legislature and say UAC is united on this issue, when that happens, we are very powerful in having the Legislature take our positions into account.”

So it comes down to an assessment of what the county gains from its membership in UAC and whether the urban issues are being stampeded by rural county commissioners.

“One of the ongoing concerns has been public lands issues,” Wilson said. “Our county has a very different position, directed by our constituents.”

It’s not the first time public lands issues have caused a rift in UAC.

Back in 2015, Salt Lake County officials threatened to walk away from the organization after UAC gave then-San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman one of its “Commissioner of the Year” awards after Lyman was convicted of a misdemeanor for his role in a protest off-road vehicle ride on a trail through Recapture Canyon that had been closed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Democratic members of the Salt Lake County Council were appalled at the message UAC was sending and felt it was at odds with the views of their constituents, whose taxes made up those hefty UAC dues.

Lyman, now a state lawmaker, averted a blow-up by declining the award, but the tension has remained.

And the inability to reconcile the counties contributed to Trupp’s departure. A survey of UAC members presented at the board meeting earlier this month found many were dissatisfied with Trupp’s performance.

Trupp said Tuesday that, in an organization with diverse members, there will inevitably be conflicts, and those conflicts have increased in recent years, as parts of Utah have seen rapid growth and others are losing population and struggling to find economic opportunity for their residents.

“These different experiences cause internal conflicts that can’t easily be resolved,” he said in a statement. The concerns about dues and calls for weighted voting were a symptom of that division. “For some counties [public lands are] a secondary matter not deserving of much time. For others, however, this is the ONLY important issue because public lands management decisions may threaten the continued existence of their communities.”

UAC has to find a way to resolve the rift, Trupp said. “I believe, and the UAC officers agree, that I am not the right person to lead that effort.”

On Tuesday, the UAC board approved the severance package for Trupp, who had two years left on his contract. The chief operating officer, Brandy Grace, will step into the CEO role — and she will have her hands full as she tries to find a way for urban and rural counties to exist under the same tent.

Meantime, it is worthwhile for Utah and Salt Lake counties to ask the bigger question: Do we want to remain in UAC?

Of course it’s unreasonable to expect all of the counties with all their diverse interests to agree on every issue.

But it’s also unreasonable for Salt Lake County taxpayers to pick up the tab for an organization to advocate against Salt Lake County’s interests and not get anything in return.

Like Mayor Wilson said: “We feel like it’s an opportunity to open up the conversation.”

So let’s have the conversation.