Commentary: HB257 would undermine democracy in rural Utah

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Torrey residents Darrell Mensel and Tyler Ward set up Ward's telescope during the town's star party October, 19, 2017. Kirsten and Mark Bailey and Mary Beddingfieldsmith held a star party at the Bailey's home to show residents and members of the Wayne County Business Association the beauty of our vast universe, planets and far away galaxies more easily seen in Wayne County's dark skies. In January 2018, Torrey, the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park, became the state's first Dark Sky Community.

In March 2018, the Legislature amended Utah Code 17-52a, making it easier for citizens to consider changing their county’s form of government. A study committee is required to analyze four forms of government and recommend which form and what options best suit their county. The committee’s recommendation is then placed on the ballot for voters to give an up or down vote.

Residents in Wayne County petitioned to create a study committee, and the resulting proposition was on the 2018 ballot. This proposal for a study committee was rejected by county voters.

At first blush, this may seem typical of how propositions fail. We tend to vote “no” on things we don’t understand or that might bring change. However, this “no” vote was something more. It illustrated the divide evident in many rural counties, pitting long-term residents against newcomers.

In Wayne County, most of the long-term residents reside in the western end. Newcomers tend to reside in the center of the county, which is also the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. With increased tourism in the park, a vibrant tourism and hospitality industry has developed there. The center of the county now provides nearly twice the amount of property taxes as the western area and generates 72 percent of the county’s tax revenue from tourism.

Political power has almost always come from the western area, a situation facilitated by the current form of government in Wayne County — three commissioners elected at large. Given that twice as many voters live in the western area as in the center, they can always outvote the newcomers. The possibility of changing the form of county government would have given center county residents a chance to share their concerns with the whole county and advocate for a form of government that better represents all citizens. It was a plea for fairness.

Last month, Rep. Phil Lyman introduced House Bill 257, which was amended on March 5 to bar Utah’s nine smallest counties from having anything other than a three-member commission. This bill passed the House last week. It failed in a Senate committee Monday, but it still could be revived. The bill blatantly undermines the will of the voters and any chance small, rural counties might opt for what they think is a better form of government. In addition, its constitutionality is questionable.

Democracy is designed for all citizens to have a voice, not just those who have historically held power. Democracy benefits from having lots of voices at the table. Healthy counties need fair representation of all their communities. And all counties, not just larger ones, should be allowed to choose their form of government. HB257 eliminates that choice for us.

The Wayne County Taxpayers Association board of directors are Bill Barrett, Diane Borgerding and John Lee of Torrey and Veronica Egan, Lorraine Miller and Brian Swanson of Teasdale.