Utah’s second-largest and fastest-growing county appears likely to let voters decide whether it has outgrown its traditional commission form of government, where three elected leaders function as both the executive and legislative branches.
Among the things motivating supporters of the proposed switch to a mayor-council form of government is a desire for greater transparency, more accountability and Utah County’s history of commissioners with serious character flaws.
David Gardner, who served from 1995-2003 and died in 2013, was twice busted for drunken driving during his second term in office and pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct involving a 9-year-old neighbor. He later entered a plea bargain on assault charges and had his third DUI.
Gary Anderson (2007-2015) got in trouble after he finished his second term, pleading guilty in 2017 to impersonating leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as part of a scam that defrauded investors out of more than $1 million. He forfeited his law license and was sentenced to pay restitution and serve five years’ probation.
Greg Graves, (2015-2019) who finished his single term in January, was elected despite a history of bankruptcies and a theft conviction. He missed weeks of work after a county investigation found he retaliated against an employee who complained of sexual harassment and was generally known to be a dishonest, explosive “workplace bully ... with whom personal interaction is to be avoided as much as possible,” according to attorney Spencer Phillips, who investigated the allegations.
When just three commissioners call the shots in a county government, misbehavior on the part of one can wreak havoc.
“When you have a three-member commission and one of those or two of those may not be good actors in their stewardship, they can then hold hostage the county process,” said Cameron Martin, chairman of the Utah County Good Governance Advisory Board, appointed to look into the change-of-government issue.
After eight weeks of study, the board recently voted to recommend a mayor-council system with two at-large councilors and five representing districts. A formal presentation to the commission has now been set for June 10.
There are definite advantages to the commission form of government. A three-person commission can make decisions quickly, and it’s cheaper and needs fewer staffers, Martin said. The question is whether those pros are worth the risks posed by the cons.
“If you have good actors, the county commission three-member system is probably the least costly and the most efficient because they’re managing things and working things well. The problem is we’ve had a history of bad actors.”
Current Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, whose first term expires in January 2021, compared the three-member commission to having “three kings,” with extraordinary powers.
“Good government has a separation of powers and checks and balances on those powers,” he said. “In the commission, there isn’t any.”
Ivie is an unabashed supporter of the change to a mayor-council form, which diffuses rather than concentrates power.
“We have seen that one bad apple can really, really destroy stuff,” said Ivie, who served through Graves’ last two years in office.
He acknowledged that a council-mayor form of government is more expensive, but says it is worth it to give residents better representation.
Brian Chapman, a political consultant who led an initiative petition to get the change-of-government question on the ballot, says a switch is overdue.
“What is definitely evident is change must occur," Chapman said. " ... The three-member commission no longer meets the expectations or needs of the citizens of Utah County.”
For now, his group has suspended its initiative drive, confident that the commission will place the issue on the ballot. Ivie puts the chances at 99 percent.
Chapman said the issue has been percolating for two decades or more — since he was president of the College Republicans at Brigham Young University and landed a spot on the county GOP’s executive committee.
“And the very first meeting, the agenda item comes up: ‘We have this county commissioner who doesn’t show up to work and they have gotten the third or fourth DUI. Should we call on him to resign? Should we censure him? What should we do?’ And I’m sitting there, you know ... What the heck is going on here?”
The commissioner in question was David Gardner, whose increasingly erratic behavior became a running joke — but not a funny one if you were a resident or business who needed something from the government.
An elected official who goes off the rails is always going to be a problem, and a different form of government won’t prevent that, but when it’s one of seven council members, “there’s much less opportunity for it to go bad,” Chapman said.
The executive in a mayor-council form of governor has a lot of power and, as the experience with former Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman shows, that can prove problematic, too.
Workman, the first mayor after Salt Lake County’s change of government in 2001, was charged with two felonies alleging misuse of public funds. After mounting pressure, she resigned from office, although she eventually was exonerated.
If Salt Lake County is any guide, cost will be Utah County’s biggest challenge in making such a change.
Salt Lake County has twice the population of Utah County’s 600,000 residents, but the budget for its nine-member council is quadruple that of Utah County’s commission — $4 million compared to just under $1 million, according to the Utah Public Finance website. What’s more, Salt Lake County’s budget for the mayor and the executive branch functions adds another $1 billion.
Like Martin, Chapman is optimistic cost increases can be contained.
Salaries and benefits are the biggest expense for the Salt Lake County Council, with each part-time council member employing a full-time policy adviser in addition to a shared staff that includes a legal counsel, budget and policy analyst, intergovernmental relations manager, fiscal managers and board of equalization administrator.
In Utah County, the three full-time commissioners also have an assistant, for a total of six positions, according to the public finance data.
“They have many more staff than we expect. Their pay is significantly higher,” said Chapman, who proposes that a Utah County mayor receive a salary of $125,000 and each of the seven part-time councilors gets $25,000.
Chapman also says a different philosophy prevails in conservative Utah County.
“These are significantly different styles of government,” he said. “Salt Lake County gets into so many areas of government that Utah County never will — or at least not right now.”
He points to Salt Lake County’s many recreation centers, community and regional parks, performing arts venues and its library system.
Chapman acknowledges budget bloat is a risk but “really the way to hold their feet to the fire on that is through elections.”
Martin said this was one of the strong arguments that came through during public hearings on the proposal: "Don’t bloat. Don’t grow government for the sake of growing it.
“But we felt to do things the right way in preparation of a more robust nature of a county that’s flourishing and growing, we need greater accountability,” Martin said.
With a three-member commission, rightly or wrongly, “the perception is that when two of them are talking, they’re brokering. And that’s not a public meeting and it’s not a decision being made in the light of day.”
Former Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson, who served two terms in the 1990s, said it’s more than a perception.
“You could do stuff," Overson recalled. “I mean all I needed was one vote” besides his own.
It was commonplace for one commissioner to drop by on another for a little dealmaking, “even though we weren’t supposed to do that. That happened. Yeah, that really did happen, and I’m sure it happens in Utah County.”
While it was great to be able to get things done fast, Overson said the change to a mayor-council government was overdue in Salt Lake County, and it’s needed now in Utah County.
“There was too much power in three people and you know there needed to be broader representation of the public," he said. “You look at Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain, you know they’re way out there. They deserve some say in what’s happening.”
Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this article.