‘This feels like a filibuster’: Utah County commissioner files last-minute petition to halt vote on changing form of county government

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Utah County Commission Chairman Bill Lee, center, and Commissioner Nathan Ivie hold a commission meeting in Provo on Dec. 2, 2017. On Tuesday, Lee filed a petition that blocks his colleagues from voting on a proposed change in the county form of government.

Utah County Commission Chairman Bill Lee faced accusations of obstruction and insincerity from his colleagues Tuesday after he joined a last-minute effort to impede a vote on moving to a council-mayor form of government.

At 8 a.m., one hour before the commission was scheduled to debate putting the government change on the November ballot, Lee and four other county residents filed a petition with the clerk-auditor initiating a campaign to collect signatures and instead create a five-member expanded commission form of government.

The petition, under state law, preempts the Utah County Commission from moving forward with the recommendations of a Good Governance Advisory Board — which called for an elected, full-time county mayor and seven elected, part-time county council members — and likely delays public consideration of a change of government until 2020, or later.

“To me, this does not feel like a serious petition,” said Commissioner Tanner Ainge. “This feels like a filibuster.”

Ainge said he was “dumbfounded” by Lee’s petition and that its timing appeared intentionally designed to derail the commission’s upcoming vote. He and Commissioner Nathan Ivie had previously voiced support for the advisory board’s recommendations, securing the two-person majority required to place the council-mayor model on the ballot, but final action on the issue had been postponed to determine whether 2019 or 2020 was the most appropriate year for a ballot question, and to allow for a prior petition drive to expire.

“Clearly, the petition signers know that this blocks the commission from acting,” Ainge said.

But Lee described the process as rushed, frustrating and agenda-driven. He questioned whether there is sufficient public support for the council-mayor model and said more discussion is needed on that and other forms of government.

Regular county elections are not held this year, meaning a special ballot and additional costs would be required to schedule the vote in 2019. And at prior commission meetings, government officials testified that 2020 might be a more appropriate year to put it on the ballot, with the regularly scheduled general election and increased voter turnout during a presidential election.

“It’s going to save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars to slow this process down,” Lee said.

Lee, who approved the creation of the Good Governance Advisory Board, said his petition is a sincere first step in eventually asking voters to approve a five-member commission.

“We plan on getting signatures and putting this on the ballot,” he said.

After the commission meeting, Ivie said he was blindsided by Lee’s actions.

“Commissioner Ainge and I were trying to work in good faith with Commissioner Lee,” Ivie said. “He just absolutely thwarted the whole process to protect his own power and protect his own paycheck.”

Ivie said he is reviewing what options exist to proceed despite the petition — like litigation or some other legal challenge — but acknowledged that Lee and his co-sponsors appear to be “in the driver’s seat.”

“This is political gamesmanship to thwart a process, and I’m so disappointed,” Ivie said. He later added that "all the money and the time that’s gone into this is now wasted because of his obstructionist attitude.”

Josh Daniels, Utah County’s chief deputy clerk-auditor, said state law is unclear on whether a petition can be withdrawn or overruled before the end of its 180-day signature-gathering window. And because only one change of government process can be initiated at a time, Daniels said, the petitioners now have until January to either succeed at collecting signatures for their proposal, or fail in that effort.

After 180 days have passed, Daniels said, a new change of government could be proposed, either by the County Commission or any other group of five residents who file a petition before the commission is able to act. That second option is the scenario that played out Tuesday, with a previous group’s petition expiring Monday — that group suspended its campaign in deference to the County Commission’s efforts — and Lee beating his commission colleagues to the punch.

“This morning opened a new window for anyone else to initiate the process,” Daniels said, “the commission included.”

While Ivie and Ainge were visibly caught off guard by Lee’s actions Tuesday, Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune after the commission meeting that he was similarly surprised by the initial petition effort filed earlier this year, which Ivie publicly supported.

Lee said he gave that petition group the courtesy of exploring its legal options within a 180-day window, and he and the other co-sponsors of Tuesday’s petition should be awarded the same courtesy.

He acknowledged his motivations could be perceived as delaying a vote in which he held a minority stance, but he added that there were “holes” in the advisory board’s recommendations that had not yet been fully addressed.

“Most people don’t understand how many executive powers there are in a county form of government,” Lee said. “They don’t understand the dynamics of how the county functions.”

Holding a public vote this year could allow for members of a new government to be elected in 2020, while a delay would set up 2022 as the earliest possible election for county elections under a new governance model.

Lee was reelected last year and his current term runs through 2022. He said Tuesday that he does not work outside his duties as commissioner.

“This is my full-time job,” Lee said, “which is unusual compared to others.”

Cameron Martin, chairman of the Utah County Good Governance Advisory Board, said he stands by the work of his committee, which reviewed various options for the county’s form of government and determined that change was needed.

He said there is a time and place for three-member commissions, but the growth in Utah County has added scope and complexity to county government that is better addressed by a council-mayor format.

“It’s just too easily manipulated,” Martin said of the current structure, “or has the perception of being manipulated.”

Asked about Lee’s proposal for a five-member expanded commission, Martin said the advisory board’s work found virtually no appetite for that model, in part because it would likely distribute power among five part-time officials.

“The community and the county employees are saying ‘we need and want a champion’,” Martin said. “They want clarity and they want accountability.”