The Democratic and Republican candidates seeking to represent an open House seat in the Wasatch County area criticized the state Legislature during a debate on Tuesday night over its passage of a controversial bill that allowed a town to absorb land without a bordering county’s consent.

HB359, which the Legislature passed earlier this year and later overturned in a special session, had opened the door for the Wasatch County town of Hideout to snatch up a portion of the 940-acre Richardson Flat in Summit County. The bill led to court battles, public feuds and bungled meetings.

Republican candidate Mike Kohler, a former Wasatch County Council member and lobbyist who has represented dairy farmers and other agricultural issues on Capitol Hill, said the legislation exhibited “one of the main problems I see in the Legislature.”

“And that’s that powerful people with money can hire the right lobbyists and get stuff done, and it usually happens in the last couple of days when everybody’s so busy they don’t have time to watch everything as they should,” he said. “These kinds of things happen every year. In my opinion, it was bad policy.”

A lobbyist working for the developer pushing Hideout’s expansion, Nate Brockbank, made some last-minute changes to the bill during the 2020 legislative session, creating a substitute that included the new annexation provision, lawmakers have said.

The bill, which had originally been drafted to address an unrelated issue in Weber County, was passed as amended without debate on the second-to-last night of the legislative session.

Democratic candidate Meaghan Miller, the director of EATS Park City, a food-focused nonprofit, said that the bill represented “legislative overreach.”

“I think as legislators, honestly, what we need to do is — we need to say land use for development is a city and county issue and it’s not our place to get involved if the cities and counties are adhering to established state statute that is keeping up with the current need for our communities,” Miller said, advocating for local control.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

The candidates' comments came during a 40-minute virtual debate hosted by the Alliance for a Better Utah’s Better Utah Institute and the League of Women Voters of Utah. It was one of two legislative candidate debates the organizations have announced ahead of November’s election.

The House District 54 seat — open this year after Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, decided not to run for re-election — is one of two seats that’s often cited as an example of legislative gerrymandering. Miller, who ran against Quinn in 2018, overwhelmingly won in Summit County but then was swamped by Republican votes in neighboring Wasatch County.

The Democratic candidate said Tuesday that she was running for the seat again because she felt her “diverse” career and educational background was the right fit for the seat. She also noted a firsthand understanding of the effects that COVID-19 has had on the community.

“COVID has touched so many lives and I’m in that with you,” she said. “My husband has been unemployed all summer because of COVID and so there have been tremendous pressures on my family.”

“I feel the pain that other people are feeling, but I chose to keep fighting,” she continued. " ... I could have walked away, could have said this is not the year, I’m too busy. But I care. I care so deeply about the longevity and sustainability and success of my community."

Debate: HD 54, Mike Kohler & Meaghan Miller

For this year's 2020 general election debate series, we are thrilled to welcome the candidates from House District 54. Join us in this forum, where candidates will address the issues that matter to you, and share their ideas on how they plan to represent you in the Utah House of Representatives.

Posted by Better Utah Institute on Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Kohler, on the other hand, sought to position himself as the candidate who would best be able to hit the ground running if elected, pointing to his years of involvement in politics and his personal relationships on Capitol Hill.

“What I offer to this seat is somebody who has the experience, who won’t have to do too much education as far as the processes, who knows most of the legislators personally,” he said. “And I look forward to the opportunity to go down there and work for my constituents in Wasatch County, Park City and Summit County in helping make our lives better.”

During the debate, the candidates also addressed police reform, following a summer of protests around the country centered on police violence and the way officers engage with communities of color.

While many activists on the left have called for “defunding the police” — a phrase often used to advocate for police department funding to be redirected to transportation, affordable housing and other community services — Kohler said he thinks law enforcement agencies need more resources, not less.

“We as a society need to start giving our leaders — police for one thing, teachers for others — giving them more respect,” he said. “I think the lack of respect for leadership and people in the community like policemen has started at our homes. It’s trending in the wrong way in my opinion and I think we need to help do that.”

Both he and Miller called for better training of officers.

Miller also said lawmakers should be mindful about how legislation affects law enforcement and whether they’re adding to a workload that’s already at capacity. And she called for groups with differing views to sit down and have a dialogue “because at the end of the day, we want the same things.”

“We want our law enforcement here when we need them,” she said. “We want people to feel safe and we want people to be able to use law enforcement as a resource and not be scared of them.”

The Better Utah Institute and the League of Women Voters will host a second legislative debate on Sept. 30 between House District 49 candidates Siamak Khadjenoury, a Democrat, and Republican Rep. Robert Spendlove.