On election day this year, Grand County citizens will be presented with a ballot question that has caused a lot of strife in the past two years: the required change in form of county government. At the Grand County Council meeting on Aug. 18, councilmember Curtis Wells proposed a plan of action that will give voters more options.

In 2018, the state legislature passed House Bill 224, which mandated that all Utah counties conform to one of four forms of government: a council with an appointed manager, a council with an elected executive, a three-person commission with executive powers, or an expanded commission with executive powers. The law also prohibits nonpartisan elections, term limits, and recalls of elected officials (except in cases of wrongdoing).

Grand County’s current form of government is not in compliance. According to a process outlined in the law, a study committee was appointed to come up with a recommendation for a new form of government for the county that is in compliance with HB224.

The committee recommended a five-person council/manager form of government with all at-large seats. That recommendation will appear on the ballot for voters during the general election in November as a “yes/no” proposition.

If the proposition fails, the county will default to a three-person commission form of government. (See “State lawmakers mandate change in county government” in March 22, 2018 edition of this newspaper).

A proposed alternative

“In Grand County, one of the things that, to me, that has become quite clear is that both historically and currently the community at large has an issue with a three-person form of government,” Wells said. “But there are also many folks that prefer a commission form of government [to a council.]”

The difference between a council and a commission is that in a commission, the elected body holds executive powers; in a council, executive powers are delegated to another branch.

Wells proposed that the council amend the county plan to remove items that are nonconforming under HB224 (term limits, recall votes, and nonpartisan elections) and redefine the county council as an expanded commission, one of the sanctioned forms of government under HB224.

As County Attorney Christina Sloan explained, Grand County’s government actually already functions like an expanded commission, holding executive powers, even though it calls itself a council. The council has tasked County Administrator Chris Baird with many of those executive tasks, and would still be able to do so under the label of a county commission, but the final executive authority still rests with the elected body.

Wells further proposed that the ballot proposition be revised to include more questions for citizens to vote on. The study committee’s recommendation would remain as a yes/no option.

“That’s an important point,” Wells noted. “The work of the study committee is unaltered. Their question moves forward. The citizens still have the opportunity to endorse their recommendation and vote yes.”

If that question passes, the county government will become a five-person council, with all seats at-large. If citizens vote down that recommendation, Wells proposed there be a second question on the ballot asking how many members voters prefer in the new form of government, five or seven. A third question would give options for elected positions to be all at-large or a combination of by-district and at-large seats.

If all of the questions fail, the county would default, not to a three-person commission, but to the conforming form established by Wells’ proposed amendments to the county plan. If all of the questions pass, the committee’s recommendation will trump the other questions, according to Sloan, and the county would become a five-person council with a manager and all seats at-large.

“We’re kind of in this binary circumstance that really isn’t ideal,” Wells said of the current situation which pits the five-person council/manager with at-large positions against the three-person commission model. “Essentially what this is doing is giving voters more options.”

“If you are a person that feels that you’re okay with a council, but you’re also interested in a commission, you just don’t like the idea of only having three members—this is the solution. If you are a person who prefers a commission, doesn’t like councils, but wants more than three members, then this is your solution,” Wells explained. “So I think it’s great. It’s a bipartisan thing.”

Response

“I was really resistant to this idea,” said Sloan, stating bluntly that she felt “suspicious of Curtis Wells.”

After study, however, Sloan said the plan, which she is calling “The Curtis Amendment,” will work legally.

“I really like an expanded commission,” she added. “I want as much transparency as possible, and that’s what an expanded commission gets you.”

Wells argued that the title of “commissioner” can make a difference in an elected official’s influence.

“One of the things I’ve experienced personally in my own political ambitions and experiences is being from a fifth-class county and not having the title of a commissioner—it sets you back,” he said.

“And if it sets you back, and your message and your mission, it sets the citizens you represent back,” said Wells.

The proposed amendments have already received formal approval from the Grand County Democratic Party. Vice-Chair Kya Marienfeld said in an email to the Moab Sun News that the proposal would fix “one of the worst aspects of HB 224” —that it did not give voters “a true choice about their form of government.”

“In this age of increasing polarization in politics, it's refreshing to be able to join hands across the aisle and support a proposal that puts more power in the hands of Grand County voters,” Marienfeld wrote.

To meet election deadlines, the amendments to the county plan and the resolutions approving the ballot questions would have to be passed by the end of this month. The council has scheduled a special meeting on Friday, Aug. 21 at 2 p.m. to discuss the amendments and ballot questions.