Grand County should adopt a council/appointed manager form of government, and split its governing body up into a combination of at-large and district seats, a study committee recommended last week.
In the first of two actions, the Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee voted 6-1 on Friday, July 26, to suggest the formation of three at-large seats and two district seats, for a total number of five seats. (At-large seats are elected by all Grand County voters; district seats are elected only by those in the candidate's voting district.)
Under the motion from committee member Jeramy Day, one of those districts would be located within Moab’s city limits, while the second district would primarily encompass rural areas. Committee member Bob Greenberg voted against the majority.
The committee followed that vote with a split 4-3 recommendation from Greenberg in favor of a county council/appointed manager form of government.
Committee chair Stephen Stocks ultimately joined Cricket Green and Jeramy Day in voting against the latter motion from Greenberg. Still, he voiced faith in the outcome of the process to choose a new form of county government.
“I think whatever form we pick, government’s not going to burn down … it’s not going to go terrible,” Stocks said. “I think we’ll elect wonderful people; I think with the number five, we’ve got a better guarantee that we’ll have more contested races, which should — should — produce more qualified candidates.”
RECOMMENDATION FOR AT-LARGE/DISTRICT MIX SEEN AS ACCEPTABLE COMPROMISE
The study committee began its work in early March, following the enactment last year of Utah House Bill 224, which mandates that all counties in the state must follow one of four state-required forms of government. Under the law, the study committee has up to one year from March 8 to complete its work; its recommendations will then appear on the November 2020 general election ballot.
While the local debate surrounding HB 224 has been contentious at times, there was broad support among study committee members for Day’s motion, which includes a caveat that each district’s boundaries should be based on population data.
Day said the option he recommended would give voters the ability to cast ballots in races for four out of five seats on the county’s next governing body.
“Nobody can complain that their vote doesn’t count — their vote doesn’t matter — and it also gives us a representative who’s going to be more minded of the rural area and a representative who’s going to be more minded of what the city’s needs are,” Day said.
Committee secretary Marcy Till said she kept asking herself which system will spur the best candidates to run for office.
At one point, she said, she thought that at-large districts could accomplish that goal. But Till said she later changed her mind, and now believes that a combination of three at-large and two district-based seats is the way to go.
”I think what people are opposed to is splitting neighborhoods, (where) half the district is here and half is here and half is here, in order to make this number correct, because then, they can’t even visit with their neighbors about the district,” Till said.
Committee member Judy Carmichael said her recommendation is to “keep it simple” and go with at-large seats. But she said she is not opposed to the combination of three at-large seats and two district seats.
“As long we can keep it from looking like we’re dinking with the numbers, I’m going to go either way, but I want people to vote for as many people who are spending their money as we can give them,” Carmichael said.
Green said that while she’d like to be able to vote in every race for a seat on the county’s governing body, it makes sense to have one city district and one rural district.
“I can live with that, because then, I get to vote for four out of five,” Green said. “… I feel that’s going to spread the pool out more, where there will be a lot more people that can run.”
Day said he sees merit to the idea of having one district that is primarily urban and one that is mainly rural in nature.
“If you’d ask me this the week before — two weeks ago — I would’ve been (in favor of) all at-large,” Day said. “But the idea that there is a disconnect between rural community and the town – Moab City – I think it’s a viable option, and it gives merit and credit to representation in those two districts.”
Although Greenberg said later that he can “live with” the recommendation, he suggested that committee members should take more time to inform themselves before they made any decisions.
“I think we’re being hasty here,” he said.
To that end, Greenberg made a motion to hold a one-time workshop to review the variables that should be considered in determining how to draw new districts. Under his motion, a proposed workshop team would have reported back to the committee with its recommendations. However, that motion ultimately failed because no one else on the study committee seconded it.
If the advice that the committee previously received is correct, Greenberg said, data from the 2020 U.S. census will be available before candidates run under a new form of county government.
“So whatever we do, hopefully will be tweaked around a bit to keep the numbers straight, if we recommend any districts,” Greenberg said. “But you should be aware of that: There will be a change in any districts we recommend, because of the timing of the census and the timing of the election of officials under a new form of government.”
COMMITTEE SPLIT WIDENS OVER FORM OF GOVERNMENT RECOMMENDATION
For the time being, Stocks said he likes the idea of adopting a county commission form of government because it gives residents the ability to contact their representatives directly with their concerns. In contrast, he said, a council form of government slows things down by requiring elected officials to place requests for action on agendas, which full councils must then approve.
However, committee member Walt Dabney noted that a majority of voters have now ratified their support for a council form of government in three elections. Likewise, he said, in all of the related surveys that have been conducted, a majority of respondents “by far” were in favor of a council with an appointed manager.
If the county adopted a commission form of government — as Stocks and Green later advocated — Dabney said he worried about people’s ability to approach “anybody” who can weigh in on their interests.
“That’s just chaos,” he said. “That’s just absolutely not the way to go, and you can’t do that with a commission, because one of those commissioners is going to be overseeing, in theory, the area of interest you have at that moment, and so you’re going to have to pick the right one of those people to go fix your road problem or ... whatever problem you have, as opposed to going to a single, professional administrator that supervises all of those people.”
If five people are in charge, Dabney said, nobody’s in charge.
Day said that Dabney’s comments illustrate why he supports a commission form of government.
“It sounds crazy, but it’s more intuitive,” Day said.
The reality, he said, is that the council administrator has “a lot” on her table.
Theoretically, a “more intuitive” commission gives credence to elected officials who are going to have to work with county department heads and experts, he said.
In theory, Day said, commissioners should also have personalities that enable them to work well with others.
“That’s not always going to happen, but he’s going to be required to, and be required to be more responsible in representing the community,” Day said.
Day said he mainly leans toward a commission form of government because he believes it requires elected representatives to be more accountable to their constituents.
“Because if you’re a commissioner — even if you’re a part-time commissioner — and you don’t put the work in, you’re not going to be re-elected,” Day said. “And that weeds out those folks — they might get elected once, but they’re not going to get elected twice.”
Till, on the other hand, said she “doesn’t really” want her elected officials’ intuition to run her government.
“I want them to be responsive to the citizens, and I want them to understand the laws that govern the county,” she said. “And if those laws are not doing what they were intended to do, or if they think that those laws need to be amended or changed, I want them to have the power to create those laws.”
The study committee’s next meeting is scheduled to be held at noon on Friday, Aug. 2, in the Grand County Council Chambers, 125 E. Center St. The meeting is open to the public.