George Pyle: Time to make a list of things to change in Utah

We need a different way to choose school board members so another Natalie Cline is not elected.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People cast their vote at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

Mark Twain

Perhaps Mr. Clemens was a bit harsh in his condemnation of a class of people who are generally public-spirited and hard-working. Even if one or two of them may have voted to ban Tom and Huck from their classrooms.

But his sentiment was certainly top-of-mind for many of us this past week when it came to light that a new member of the Utah State Board of Education, Natalie Cline, has a long Facebook trail of bigoted and retrograde statements condemning LGBT people and the Black Lives Matter movement, all apparently out of a concern that straight white people are somehow an endangered species.

Cline — or, more properly, the fact that she got herself elected to the board — is a symptom of our Trumpian age, where there is no such thing as too wacko to get yourself elected in a heavily Republican district or state. (See also, Burgess Owens; Marjorie Taylor Greene.)

The more specific problem in this case, one that might be more easily solved, is that the seats on the Utah State Board of Education are not only elected, which has long been the case, but elected on a partisan basis, which is new.

Appearing as they do on a bedsheet-sized ballot, confronting voters who have never heard of any of the candidates, any Republican who runs for office outside of Salt Lake City is basically a lock. Campaigning, research, reporting, on the part of candidates, the press or the public, just doesn’t happen.

To head off the election of the next Natalie Cline, just change the law, again, so that members of the state board are appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the state Senate. And make a rule that no more than eight of the 15 board members can be members of the same political party. (Can’t find seven Democrats in Utah? Appoint unaffiliated people. It’s not supposed to be political.)

Anybody likely to be Utah’s governor in the foreseeable future will appoint mostly conservative-ish Republicans, plus some moderate Democrats and, if we’re lucky, some nonpartisan wonks. But with a staff to do the vetting ahead of time, we are less likely to see school board members who will make the governor look bad.

And, speaking of school boards, the local one in Salt Lake City has also shown itself to be pretty darn dysfunctional lately, what with resignations, recriminations and board members playing computer solitaire during virtual meetings.

Again, as local school boards are chosen by voters in the same elections where we all vote for presidents, governors and members of Congress and of the Utah Legislature, the selection process suffers greatly from public inattention. One remedy would be to have school board members elected in odd-numbered years, as with most mayors and city councils in Utah. That way they’d be at least a little more likely to be examined by the voters, before it’s too late.

The matter of the Utah attorney general is more complex. Because that office is elected directly by the people, the AG is not answerable to the governor or, except in the most extreme, impeachable circumstances, to the Legislature. Whoever wins the Republican primary is guaranteed the job.

Which is too bad, as the sitting attorney general, Sean Reyes, has made the office into a nest of partisan hackery that opposes his own state Health Department’s pandemic guidelines and shills for his party’s presidential candidate, no matter how far into the muck of lies he has to sink. And his two predecessors weren’t much better.

Again, the fact that too few voters really think about whomever is running for attorney general might suggest that the office shouldn’t be elected, but appointed by the governor, who would be held responsible if the attorney general turned out to be a total embarrassment.

The problem with that is, of course, what if it is the governor who is the bad apple? If the attorney general is his hire, who would investigate a suspect governor? A part-time Legislature sure to be dominated by members of the governor’s own party?

It is at least good to see that the Utah Legislature is moving ahead with a measure to allow Dixie State University to change its name to something less, well, antebellum. Once that is done, the next step will be to figure out a new name. (Southern Utah University is already taken as a name, even though St. George is further south than Cedar City.)

DSU already dropped the nickname Rebels for the less problematic, and more western-looking, Trailblazers. So, in keeping with the much more forward-looking motif, how about Trailblazer State University?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Pyle.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, would like to be allowed to vote for which foods are really good for you.


Twitter, @debatestate