Months after scathing state audit, elected leaders in this Utah county face outcry over transparency, public spending

‘They think they have all the power in the world,’ one resident said of elected leaders.

(Chris Detrick | Salt Lake Tribune) An oil truck drives north on U.S. Highway 40 over the Green River on its way to Vernal in 2005. Months after a scathing state audit, which came during a contentious year for Uintah County government, county residents say little has changed.

At a Nov. 22 budget hearing, Uintah County resident Tammie Mecham attempted to share her concerns with elected leaders about county management and public spending.

But she was immediately shut down, witnesses said. Commissioner Bill Stringer directed the deputy clerk to stop recording audio of the meeting. Only after an officer removed Mecham from commission chambers did the audio recording, which The Salt Lake Tribune reviewed, apparently resume.

“It’s shady,” Mecham said in an interview with the Tribune. “They don’t want the public to know a person was escorted out of the room. Why would you cut the tape if that wasn’t shady?”

Cutting audio is a violation of Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act, which requires “complete and unedited” recording of open portions of meetings, from commencement through adjournment.

The incident was just one example of a contentious year for Uintah County government.

Starting in January, there was clamor about the county spending hundreds of thousands in federal coronavirus money on a tubing hill. Then came revelations that commissioners’ family members also received thousands in pandemic business grants. In the spring, commissioners signaled their intent to remove accounting responsibilities from the clerk/auditor, who had been questioning the commission’s expenditures.

In October, the Utah Office of the State Auditor issued a scathing report rebuking county officials for financial mismanagement. County commissioners had “blurred the lines of accountability” when they took budget responsibilities from clerk/auditor Mike Wilkins, according to the audit. The audit also concluded that Wilkins, who has held that office for more than three decades, “lacks the requisite skills, knowledge, and expertise necessary” to manage the county’s finances.

Clashes between the county’s elected leaders continue to intensify, nearing an apparent breaking point as they battle over next year’s budget. Accusations of “forged” documents, retaliatory budget cuts and a toxic work environment are being hurled back and forth. Meanwhile, taxpayers and residents of the county demand to know what’s going on.

Mecham has used the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, to review public records in an attempt to understand. But she continues to feel stifled.

“We live in a little town,” she said. “I guess the biggest reason I’m doing these GRAMAs is to stick up for all the people they’ve harassed.”

‘Manipulating the system’

The commissioners do not allow people to share general comments at their meetings. Members of the public can only comment on items listed on the meeting agenda, and the commissioners have denied requests to add Mecham’s concerns to the schedule.

“[The commissioners] say I don’t have enough knowledge and I haven’t done enough research,” Mecham said. “I think the biggest reason they won’t let me on the agenda is because of the stuff I found.”

Among the records that concern her is a $10,000 pandemic relief business grant originally issued to “-I Ranch,” owned by Commissioner Brad Horrocks’ wife, according to a copy of the grant approval obtained by The Tribune. The ranch does not appear to be a licensed business, and the bank refused to cash the check. So a new one was issued in the commissioner’s wife’s name, records show.

“That’s manipulating the system,” Mecham said.

Asked for comment on the payment, Horrocks told The Tribune “[you] don’t have to have a business license to have a ranch.”

The state audit found that the Uintah County officials overseeing the nearly $3.5 million in business grants that came from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES) didn’t do anything to verify or document whether applicants had been impacted by the pandemic, putting the funding at risk of repayment.

‘No one can ask questions’

At another November meeting, as county residents tried to speak, commissioners shot back that they weren’t in a public hearing, although they did ultimately allow a handful of comments from residents who complained about transparency.

“You’re a public servant,” said one resident, according to a recording. “To not let us speak … my goodness, it’s not right.”

Wilkins, the county clerk/auditor, regularly attends commission meetings. He said commissioners used to allow general comments from the public, but stopped about three years ago.

“They’re very transparent, just ask them,” Wilkins said sarcastically. “Yet no one can speak, no one can ask questions, no one can participate.”

Allowing general public comment “tended to extend the meetings way longer,” Commissioner Stringer told The Tribune.

And while the commission formerly livestreamed its meetings on YouTube and allowed virtual participation during pandemic-related shutdowns — a practice many public bodies have continued — Uintah County reverted back to audio-only in August 2020, allowing only those attending in person to participate.

Commissioners didn’t see the need to continue virtual participation, Commissioner Bart Haslem said. “You have a lot of fake profiles when you do livestream and take comments.”

Uintah County Commissioners, from left: Chairman Brad Horrocks, Bill Stringer and Bart Haslem.

Jeffrey Hunt, a media law attorney, said that while state law does not require general comment or mandate that meetings be livestreamed, they are still considered best practices and a “healthy thing for democracy.”

“It gives the public an opportunity to communicate with their elected officials, and it’s one of the most important functions of a public body, to be responsible and accountable to the public it serves,” Hunt said. “It doesn’t cause the frustrations to go away by not giving a voice to them.”

Crippling cuts, questionable checks

Efforts to scale back the clerk/auditor’s responsibilities also are generating outcry.

The commission previously removed Wilkins’ budget duties, assigning them instead to a budget officer under their direction. When Utah County attempted something similar earlier this year, it sparked immediate backlash. Lt. Gov Deidre Henderson blasted the consolidation of public fund oversight powers as “concerning” and “insane.” (Henderson’s office declined to comment on Uintah County, stating “it is outside the scope of the lieutenant governor’s responsibilities.”)

Uintah County commissioners are now going a step further, attempting to strip Wilkins of his accounting role.

In its investigation of Uintah County, the state auditor’s office specifically dinged the commission for taking over budget-preparation duties. And in an interim committee at the Utah Legislature last month, State Auditor John Dougall and Deputy Auditor Hollie Andrus — without specifically naming Uintah County — raised concerns about separations of powers in county governments.

They recommended that lawmakers revise 2012 legislation that gave the Uintah County Commission authority to move budget and accounting services to officers under their supervision.

“Whenever you centralize management and legislative authority, there’s concerns as to misappropriation, fraud, abuse and general misuse of county funds,” Andrus said at the committee hearing.

Still, Uintah County commissioners seem intent to move forward with nixing Wilkins’ accounting role, recent meeting discussions, interviews and their tentative 2022 budget suggest.

“It’s going to cripple my office,” said Wilkins of his budget, which cuts two workers from his six employees.

In addition to overseeing the county’s accounting, the clerk/auditor manages elections, passport applications, marriage licenses, business licenses, financial statements, public notices and more.

County Recorder Brenda McDonald, who has spoken in Wilkins’ defense at commission meetings, also had her budget cut. That’s after she brought in more than $588,000 in revenue this year, well above her $486,000 budget.

“We’ve had a lot of new home sales, we’ve had a lot of refinancing. Where we are, there’s also oil and gas, so we have a lot of documents that way,” McDonald said. “I asked last year if I could get a part-time person. And they refused.”

McDonald said the budget cuts “definitely” were a form of retaliation. Wilkins concurred.

“Absolutely,” he said.

It has also been several years since commissioners issued cost-of-living raises to elected officials or non-law-enforcement county employees.

“Morale is horrible. It’s a very toxic environment,” said IT director Ryan Mattson, who recently tendered his resignation after working as a county employee for more than a decade.

Following policy, or circumventing the process?

The commissioners, however, said there are serious red flags and potentially illegal activity in the clerk/auditor’s office that merit a reconsideration of duties.

In January, the commission approved take-home vehicle requests, which charge employees a daily fee if they commute to and from work with a county-owned vehicle. The county typically charged employees per mile driven, according to interviews.

But documents provided to The Tribune show the commission approved a fixed $3 rate for certain employees in the road department. Commissioners wanted those employees to have vehicles at the ready in case of a public safety emergency, Haslem said.

The clerk/auditor revised those forms in February, however, after the commission had signed them, changing the charges back to a per-mile fee.

“He’s making decisions in places where he has no place to make a decision,” Haslem said.

But Wilkins said he was simply changing the forms to align with the county’s rules.

“Our policy at that time stated $3 a day, or cents per mile, whichever was higher,” he said. “I was enforcing that policy as it was written. And they did not want that.”

One employee approved for the fixed $3 fee lived nearly 13 miles from their county workplace, and would have paid $14.11 in fees under the county policy, according to documents provided to the Tribune.

On Feb. 17, the commission issued a chiding letter to Wilkins. “Your office has essentially forged a decision of the commission,” it stated.

Pending litigation

Haslem added that commissioners only found out about the vehicle-request form changes when the county’s human resources office alerted them. “When we called [Wilkins] and confronted him, he got upset that the HR director brought that to our attention,” Haslem said.

A confrontation Wilkins allegedly had with the director, which he denies, resulted in a disorderly conduct charge from Vernal police. Court records show Wilkins has pleaded not guilty and a pre-trial conference is scheduled for January.

“That is pending litigation and I’ll make no comment on that,” Wilkins said, adding, “It did not happen.”

Haslem also provided an email chain between the commissioners and journalists with UBMedia, a local news outlet that publishes the Vernal Express. The messages show Wilkins gave a copy of the state’s audit of the county, as well as a county-commissioned audit, to reporters in August, when both documents were still drafts.

The move appears to have violated state law. GRAMA specifically defines records from a government auditing agency as “protected” if they’re “relating to an ongoing or planned audit until the final audit is released.”

In emails dated Aug. 19, UBMedia’s general manager told commissioners and the county attorney that he had “destroyed” and deleted the draft audits after communicating with the state auditor’s office. The auditor’s finalized report is dated Sept. 30, and the office released findings to the public on Oct. 13.

Wilkins told The Tribune he was unaware the drafts were protected under GRAMA when he provided them to UBMedia.

“It was a document that was in my office,” he said. “There was nothing marked on it that said it was not a public record.”

Haslem said the commissioners asked the Utah Attorney General’s Office to investigate the matter.

“We are aware of both complaints and are currently reviewing them,” a spokesperson for the office said, referring to the commissioners’ complaint about the audit drafts, as well as whether any of the finalized audit’s findings and recommendations would be enforced.

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, when the question of whether to relieve the clerk/auditor of more duties could be decided.

“For better or for worse, the commission is the executive and legislative branch,” said Commissioner Stringer, acknowledging the controversial move. “You don’t make everyone happy. We’ve been in the news for things all the way back to January, but all of those things resolved. None of them ended up going anywhere, as much as all those people who complained thought they would.”

Mecham, however, said she intends to rally residents to attend the Monday meeting and again call for better transparency, and checks on authority, in Uintah County.

“They think they have all the power in the world,” she said.