Utah County Commission approves public vote on changing form of government

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Utah County Commission Chair Bill Lee, center, and Commissioner Nathan Ivie hold a commission meeting Dec. 12, 2017.

Utah County residents will vote in November on whether to replace their three-person county commission with a county mayor and five-person council after a split vote by commissioners Tuesday morning.

The 2-1 vote came one day after the organizers of a citizen petition drive, led by Commissioner Bill Lee, fell short of the required signatures needed to place the question of a five-person commission on the ballot.

Lee acknowledged that his petition had failed to meet the signature requirements, comparing his group’s work to that of a previous signature campaign, supported by commissioner Nathan Ivie. That group suspended its efforts after the county commission approved the creation of a good governance advisory board to study and issue recommendations on the issue of a change in government.

“I’ve talked with a lot of people and this growing in government, even from three [commissioners] to five, was a tough, tough talk,” Lee said. “And to go to a mayor-council form is going to be a tough sell, I think, across the county.”

Lee’s petition drive — filed one hour before the commission was scheduled to vote on placing a change of government before voters — preempted the commission from moving forward on a public vote last year and was criticized as a “filibuster” by now-Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge.

On Tuesday, Ainge said he was grateful for the work of the good governance advisory board, which recommended a switch to a council-mayor form of government, and said he looked forward to a public debate on the topic.

“We can have a lot of discussion for the next 10 months about what is the right form of government for Utah County,” Ainge said.

Amelia Powers Gardner, the Utah County clerk-auditor, said Lee’s group submitted roughly 3,000 signatures on Monday, according to an unofficial count based on weighing petition forms, well below the 10,200 required to qualify for the ballot.

Powers Gardner said she expects to place the question of a mayor-council form of government on the ballot following Tuesday’s commission vote.

“Pending any unforeseen legal issue,” she said, “our plan is to put that on the November ballot.”

The change in government, if approved by voters, would take effect on Jan. 2, 2023, following an election for the first county mayor and council in 2022.

Ivie, a vocal proponent of changing the county’s form of government, highlighted what he views as strengths of a new form of government during Tuesday’s meeting, including the separation of executive and legislative powers between the mayor and council, and the election of council members from geographic districts instead of at-large commissioners elected by the entire county.

He also said he and his staff had looked at salary levels — including $120,000 plus benefits for the county mayor and $20,000 without benefits for each of the five part-time council members — that would cost the taxpayers less than the current three-person commission.

A cost analysis released by the county on Tuesday showed current salary and benefit expenses of $711,382 for the three commissioners and their three policy advisors. The proposed change would cost $468,550, according to the analysis, for a mayor, deputy mayor, five council members and an assistant to the council.

“We were able to come to a compensation rate that gives us a 34% savings over our current form of government,” Ivie said.

But Lee argued that rather than separating government powers, the switch to a new form of government would consolidate power in the county mayor. He said that his conversations with residents suggests that many voters remain undecided on whether a change is necessary.

“There’s different obstacles, challenges and benefits that come from every form of government that is out there,” Lee said.

Following Tuesday’s vote, the commission announced a series of public hearings on the proposed change in government. Those hearings will be held at the County Commission chambers on Jan. 22, Feb. 5, Feb. 12 and Feb. 19.