Utah County commissioners give pros and cons of changing local form of government

(Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP) In this July 29, 2020, file photo, Todd Gallagher prepares mail-in ballot envelopes including an I Voted sticker in Minneapolis. Utah County voters will decide on Nov. 3 whether to retain their three-member county commission form of government or switch to a mayor-council system.

Utah County voters next week will decide whether the county government should change drastically.

Proposition 9 would eliminate the three-member Utah County Commission and replace it with a county mayor and five council members. The number of council members was decided on by the Commission in an attempt to fairly represent the demographics of the county.

Current county commissioners are split about whether this change will be good for Utah County. Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie support it and Bill Lee opposes it.

Lee says he feels like he excels in his current full-time role.

“The workload is not at a level to where we have ever had the thoughts of ‘we need to hire another secretary or someone on board’,” Lee said in an interview.

He calls the role of commissioner as essentially being a “land manager.” Together, they manage titles, boundaries, surveying, and assessments while funding the police department and managing the jail. This is a job easily accomplished by three full-time elected individuals, according to Lee.

While the mayor would be a full-time position, the council members would be part-time. The departments, such as those headed by the elected county assessor, treasurer, recorder and the like would remain the same.

Government ‘bloat’

Lee looks at Salt Lake County and hates what he sees as the unnecessary “bloat” of the administration budget, where the mayor has multiple highly paid executives and each part-time council member gets a full-time, well-paid policy adviser. Under Utah County’s current system, each commissioner gets one senior policy adviser, and that’s their whole staff.

He’s proud of the county’s lean $1.4 million administrative budget.

“The model to the north has grown substantially over the 20 years,” Lee said. “It’s obvious that that type of government tends to bloat and has bloated. Our costs are a lot less, a lot more manageable .”

Jim Bradley is a Salt Lake County Council member who, from 1991-1994, was a county commissioner. He said the switch wasn’t as dramatic as it’s been made out to be.

“In the commission form we had the same departments and we have those same departments now,” Bradley said in an interview. He recognized that the mayor needed to build up his or her own administrative staff at the time which “did cost a little more, but not near as much as you would have expected.”

While Lee estimated the Salt Lake County administrative budget to be somewhere around $14 million, Bradley says it’s closer to half that — about $8 million.

The Salt Lake County expense summary for 2020 lists “mayor administration” at $6.6 million. But a separate line item is listed for “mayor financial administration,” at $5.3 million.

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie says that the cost of switching to the council form of government would actually cost 32% less than currently. “He [Commissioner Lee] is lying about the cost," Ivie said in an interview. ”He’s been trying to protect his paycheck and job."

Should the mayor require more staff, as in Salt Lake County, Ivie said it would have to be put to a vote of the council.


Bradley argues that in judging a change of government, you need to look beyond the cost.

“What it buys you is a great deal more of efficiency and transparency,” Bradley said.

When there are three members of the commission, one only needs to win over one colleague to secure a majority.

“There’s not as much transparency because you can talk to that person outside of [public] session,” Bradley said. In his experience, “a lot of the real discussions are had before the session.”

Lee would argue that the current system is more democratic than a council system. Right now, all Utah County voters vote for all three commissioners. Should the county convert to a council system, a voter only casts a ballot for mayor and one council candidate to represent his or her district.

“You’ve lost 80% of your voting power,” Lee said. “The other four still represent you but you don’t have the ability to vote them in or out.”

He also said that the commissioners don’t try to represent specific areas of the county, “just because it seems disingenuous to do that.” Instead, he feels that he represents the entire county.

Ivie disagrees that Lee, from his home in Pleasant Grove, can represent the rural parts of Utah County. Ivie hails from Benjamin, and is the first commissioner from an unincorporated area to be elected in 20 years.

“People that live in Alpine and Pleasant Grove don’t know what’s happening in Benjamin,” Ivie said. “I want someone that I run into in the grocery store representing me. I want someone fighting for me that lives in my neighborhood."

Bradley sees Utah County as a very diverse county in comparison to Salt Lake County. “Utah County has a lot of urban areas and then a lot of rural," he said. “So how they divide that up that will be interesting to see. Drawing those district lines will be very interesting and challenging.”

Commissioner Tanner Ainge, a proponent for Proposition 9, has already committed to not run for mayor should the measure pass. He hasn’t ruled out running for a council seat.

Ivie, on the other hand looks forward to returning to his other job, after losing his bid for reelection in the June 30 Republican primary.

“I am very very very excited to get back to being a full-time horse trainer," he said, adding: “I’m not leaving my public service.” He still plans on engaging his community on pertinent issues, among them water rights, farming, and LGBTQIA struggles.

Lee hopes that the proposition won’t pass at all. But if it does, “I’m not one to limit myself," he said. “I’ll keep all my options open for the future.”