Days after Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge announced he’s resigning from office, Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner says she’d like to take over his job.
In a news release issued Friday, Gardner knocked the commission for approving a tax hike two years ago, the first the county had seen in 23 years. She added that Utah County needs a “strategic vision” to streamline public services.
“We have been asleep at the wheel. We have no direction and the government continues to grow right under our noses — even when we don’t want it to,” said Gardner, a Republican, in the news release. “We need to intentionally plan for our future; otherwise, we may be faced with future surprise tax increases. I will make sure that never happens again.”
Ainge, along with former County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, passed the property tax increase in 2019 over the objections of Commissioner Bill Lee, who earlier this week said he wants to get busy with a new, more conservative body repealing the tax hike.
“I truly believe when people have different backgrounds, they bring different perspectives,” Gardner said in an interview. “Utah County has never had a female serve on the County Commission, ever.”
Gardner said she also grew up in humble circumstances, with her family occasionally experiencing bouts of homelessness.
“I’ve shared a motel room with my family for months at a time,” Gardner said.
That experience helped her realize how important it is to reduce costs of county services for families struggling to get by.
“I recognize government needs to serve the citizens,” Gardner said. “But also, we need to do so in a fiscally responsible way.”
The clerk/auditor position is Gardner’s first time holding elected office, and she has worked to rebuild its reputation. Her predecessor botched a 2017 special election for Congress by mailing thousands of Republican primary ballots to unaffiliated voters, then got called the “epicenter of dysfunction” by then-Gov. Gary Herbert for long lines on election night in 2018.
Since taking office in 2019, Gardner has improved election efficiency and security, including during a historic presidential election with record-high turnout, during a pandemic to boot, in 2020.
“We took a haphazard and chaotic office and turned it into a model for the country,” Gardner said.
Gardner added that she has brought other reforms to the clerk/auditor office beyond elections. She extended the hours county residents can apply for passports and marriage certificates to evenings and weekends, so families won’t have to take time off work to access those services.
That small change boosted the number of people getting those documents in person, and paying associated fees directly to the county. Gardner said she was able to return $350,000 back to the county’s 2020 general fund because of it, even during a year when few people were traveling or planning weddings.
Her office also introduced performance-based budgeting for county departments.
“Moving forward, [it] will only continue to save more money,” Gardner said.
Moments after news of Ainge’s resignation became public, Gardner said her phone began “blowing up” with messages from people encouraging her to take his place.
“There was quite a groundswell of grassroots support [from] other elected officials who reached out to me and recruited me to run,” she said. “They recognized the reforms I’ve done in the clerk/auditor office could really be done countywide.”
Ainge, a first-term Republican on the commission, said Wednesday that he would step down after creating an odd temporary vacancy situation while training for the Utah National Guard in Virginia. He has also been appointed to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development board by Gov. Spencer Cox, a part-time commitment.
The Utah County Republican Party’s Central Committee will choose Ainge’s replacement. Party Chair Stewart Peay said that decision will likely come on April 17 or 24.
Ainge and Gardner previously clashed over Twitter in November, when Ainge publicly criticized members of his own Republican Party, including former president Donald Trump, for making false claims of voter fraud.
Gardner tweeted a six-part response in support of investigating all fraud claims.
“The [future of] the party in Utah depends a lot more on the leaders in Utah and less on Trump and national rhetoric,” Gardner told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time.