After months of discussion, the Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee has decided what the proposed new form of government will be … but now their hard work actually begins.
Since March, the study committee has done extensive research and outreach to make sure that Grand County conforms to new state law. Passed during the 2018 session of the Utah Legislature, House Bill 224 requires the county change its form of government.
“We researched widely, we spoke to all the elected officials and county department heads,” committee member Bob Greenberg told the Moab Sun News. “We got back 250 surveys from Grand County residents and had four public meetings, way more than any other occasion I can think of.”
After collecting information for months, on July 26, the committee approved the recommendation of a form of government with a five-seat county council and a council-appointed manager. In the returned public surveys, Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon reported that this form of government received twice as much support as any other.
With that, the key decision before the committee was made. At its most recent meeting on Friday, Aug. 2, the work of figuring out just how to institute that new form of government began.
REDISTRICTING GRAND COUNTY
The plan for the new form of county government would have three of the five council seats be designated at-large. The remaining two seats will represent two newly created districts.
William Cooper, a consultant on election districts, joined the meeting by phone to present three ways these districts lines could be drawn based on population, number of registered voters and other factors.
“Conceptually, what we’re saying, (is) we want a 90 percent urban district and a 90 percent rural district,” committee member Walt Dabney said. “But let’s not try to pin it down with numbers we do not have right now.”
The proposed plans are based on population data from the 2010 census; districts may have to be retooled after results of the 2020 census are released.
“We really would make a mistake if we do something based on assumptions of what we think is going to happen in the future,” Salt Lake City-based attorney Gavin Anderson said. “I think we need to stick as close as we can to existing figures … if there is a wide divergence after the 2020 census, that’s going to be fixed quite rapidly.”
WORKING OUT THE NITTY GRITTY DETAILS
Greenberg said that the committee was “really lucky” to retain Anderson, who is recognized as one of the state’s experts in forms of government.
“He’s nuts, he’d like to spend his weekends doing this,” Greenberg said.
Anderson himself seems to agree
“Normal people go golfing or fishing … I collect optional plans of government,” he said during the Aug. 2 meeting.
The committee reviewed initial ideas on how to draft the Optional Plan for the Grand County Government, with Anderson offering suggestions on how to ensure that the recommendations were clear and legally sound in regards to state statutes.
Just some of the issues the committee must decide in future weeks include future councilmembers’ pay and benefits; term limits; determining qualifications for the council-appointed manager; and myriad other details.
“Some of this will go smoothly,” Anderson said, “and some of this will require some fairly significant preparation by both the council and other employees and elected officials.”
SEPARATION OF POWERS
“What we have right now and the government we’re going to have in the future is very different when it comes to the separation of powers,” committee member Jeramy Day said.
“There’s going to be a pretty big mindset difference that the voters of Grand County are going to have to grasp,” Anderson agreed. “The county manager position is quite a bit different than [current council administrator] Ruth Dillon’s. The county manager is almost exactly like a county-elected mayor.”
The committee, with Anderson’s advice, must create “laundry lists” of clearly separated responsibilities: legislative duties overseen by the county council and executive duties seen to by the manager.
BOUND BY TIMETABLE
The process for bringing a new form of county government before voters has a strict timetable of a year.
“Committee members have been quite frustrated by the timeline,” Greenberg said. “Nobody seems to have really thought this law through before they passed it.”
The committee clearly has that timetable in mind, briskly moving forward with discussion and adoption of a new plan.
“What we do now is to the best of our ability,” Day said. “If situations change even after our plan is presented and the community votes on it, that’s going to be the responsibility of the newly elected council.”
The committee will meet through November of this year, after which the proposed plan will go to the county attorney to be reviewed for its compliance with law, and then go on to voters on the 2020 ballot.
If citizens approve the new form of government, then in 2022 they will have the opportunity to vote for elected officials under the new plan.
The new form of government will go into effect in January 2023, assuming voters approve the plan.
“If the plan fails after the election of 2020,” Anderson said, “we’ve got to come up with a new study committee.”
The sound of groans filled the room.