The debate over changing Utah County’s form of government could be headed to the ballot, the courts or the state Legislature after an occasionally testy emergency meeting Thursday morning, in which the County Commission voted 2-1 to move forward with a public vote despite the objections of the county attorney.
The commission’s resolution calls for a vote to be held in November on establishing a mayor-council government. But the resolution’s legality is ambiguous, and the commission’s action may be improper in the face of a government-change petition filed earlier this month by commission Chairman Bill Lee and four associates, arguing against the switch.
“I don’t care what form of government this is, but we have to follow the process,” Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said. “And we have to follow a process that is bedrock to American culture. And that is that we do not do things in backrooms; we do not do things at 7:45 [a.m.] the day after a holiday.”
One of the five petition signers who joined Lee’s effort has asked to remove his name. Commissioners Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie argued that withdrawal raises the potential that Lee’s petition is invalid and that an opening exists for the commission to move forward on the recommendations of a Good Governance Advisory Board. That board recommended the county move from the three-member commission to an elected mayor and seven-member, part-time council.
An alternate county resident has asked to replace the outgoing petitioner to continue meeting the five-person requirement for petitions.
“There’s a question of the [petition’s] validity,” Ainge said. “To the extent that window is open, we want to take action. We always have; we wanted to before it was blocked.”
Ainge amended the commission’s resolution Thursday to request a legal opinion on the petition’s validity, and to place the government change on the ballot in either November 2019 (if the petition is invalidated) or during the next regularly scheduled county elections in 2020 (if the petition stands).
“To protect ourselves from this happening again,” Ainge said, “we want to go ahead and get this on record.”
Leavitt reiterated his position that state law blocks the commission from taking any such action, even with the trigger mechanism included in Ainge’s amendments. Leavitt also suggested the uncertainty could prompt litigation, which would add costs and additional delays to the issue beyond the deadlines for a November election.
“In our opinion, you don’t have authority to put anything on the ballot until there’s something done with the petition,” Leavitt said. “And so, what this resolution purports to do is the very thing that I don’t think you have authority to do.”
Ivie, who remotely participated in Thursday’s meeting, said there are other legal interpretations that he agrees with.
“Your job is to advise,” Ivie told Leavitt, “and I appreciate your advice.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, told commissioners that he has sufficient support in the Legislature to sponsor a bill that would alter the county’s government through state law.
Earlier this week, Brammer penned a letter, published in the Daily Herald and co-signed by 17 other state lawmakers, in which he suggested that any county with more than 500,000 residents — which currently includes Utah County and Salt Lake County — be immediately required to adopt a form of government that divides the county’s executive and legislative powers, and that establishes representation by geographic districts. Both of those criteria are met by a council-mayor form of government but not met by a commission.
“If this goes past into the next legislative session,” Brammer said, “I have the votes that I need to force a change.”
Ainge told The Salt Lake Tribune that he generally prefers government decisions to be made at the most local level. But because state law created the ambiguities that Utah County is dealing with, it’s appropriate for the law to be updated and clarified on Capitol Hill.
“That’s a fine path forward,” Ainge said, “and even a preferred a path forward.”
Lee was accused of acting in bad faith after filing his petition July 9, roughly one hour before the commission was scheduled to discuss the recommendations of the governance board. Because state law permits only one government change effort at a time, Lee’s petition preempted the commission from voting to place the council-mayor option on the ballot, for which Lee was expected to hold a minority, opposing viewpoint.
Lee denies those accusations, saying his intentions are sincere to collect signatures and put the alternate option of a five-person commission before voters. He also says any allegations of bad faith levied against him could also be raised against Ivie, who earlier this year joined a now-abandoned petition effort to advance the council-mayor question.
Ivie said in an interview after Thursday’s meeting that he rejects that comparison, because his petition did not compete with or delay any pending action by the commission in the way that Lee’s petition has.
“The first petition initiated action,” Ivie said. “It wasn’t blocking anything.”
If Lee’s petition is upheld as valid, the commission would be prohibited under state law from advancing its own question on a change of county government until at least January, when Lee’s group would either need to submit qualifying signatures or fail to do so.
Lee said that, to him, the quality of the individuals elected to serve in government is more important than the form of government they are elected into.
“I don’t think one form is angelic, and I don’t think the other form is of the devil,” Lee said. “I just think they have their pluses and minuses with them, and we need to weigh them out with the public and see what they’ll support.”
He said his colleagues’ actions Thursday place the county on dangerous ground and that he’d like to see more collaboration before the public is asked to vote.
“I find it ironic that we’re throwing spears and everything at each other without even having some sort of a dialogue, even if we oppose each other on an idea,” Lee said. “This is an idea. It’s not a life-or-death situation.”
At previous commission meetings, county election administrators and members of the public questioned whether 2019 was the appropriate year for voters to approve or reject a new form of government. Critics argued that the timeline was too compressed, and that 2020 offered a more appropriate window by coinciding with regularly scheduled countywide elections, the higher turnout of a presidential election cycle and the next round of redistricting.
Ivie said those same factors support a vote for the first mayor and council members in 2020, after a vote on the government form in 2019.
“What better time to vote for those new positions," Ivie asked, "than when you have a ton of involvement and activity?”
Ivie said there is a time and place for commissions, but that population growth and development in Utah County require a different form of government.
“Time to grow up,” Ivie said. “We’re a growing county, and it’s time for our government to be reflective of the needs of the people.”