A new law, signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 15, mandates that counties use one of four authorized forms of government, and Grand County, with its seven-person council and council administrator, is not one of the authorized forms.
The county must either strengthen its executive role, creating a county manager or county executive, or form a commission of three or more people. In a commission, the commissioners are both the legislative and the executive heads of the county.
“There is no choice, barring the [Utah] Supreme Court saying something different about our county picking one of the four forms,” said Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald.
The law left the council scrambling. Earlier in the month Council Chair Mary McGann met with Grand County Administrator Ruth Dillon to get a resolution on the county council agenda that would initiate the process of forming a new government. However, a group of citizens beat the council to the punch.
Citizens affiliated with the Grand County Republican Party filed a notice of intent with the clerk’s office on March 15, just minutes after the governor signed the bill into law. According to Fitzgerald, that move excludes the county council from initiating the process of forming a new government, a lengthy process that involves public notice, multiple meetings to educate the public, public comment and the formation of a seven-person committee to study alternatives to the current form of government.
The committee will recommend a new form of government and citizens will vote to approve or reject the committee’s recommendation.
The citizen sponsors of the notice of intent are former Grand County Council Member Lynn Jackson and Grand County Republican Party Chair Jeramy Day, as well as Gene Ciarus, Jerry McNeely and Manuel Torres.
If citizens or the county do not successfully choose a new form of county government by 2020, the county will automatically become a three-person commission similar to the San Juan County government, Fitzgerald said.
Under the new law, three features of Grand County’s government are illegal — and non-partisan elections, term limits and recall will soon be things of the past.
Council Member Curtis Wells took issue with the last-minute addition to the agenda.
“The council was not notified of this resolution until 7 p.m. yesterday,” Wells said to McGann. “We weren’t given a draft of this resolution until 11 p.m. The public was not notified of this. The website was not changed until today … I find that very, very inappropriate and I am strongly advising that we take a step back and give our county attorney an opportunity to discuss this with [Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s] office, give our elected official clerk/auditor the opportunity to do this. You taking the position that you know what’s best with a resolution that the public hasn’t seen … I think it creates a big liability for us.”
Wells told The Times-Independent that it was a politically motivated resolution.
“I think it says something that it was tabled unanimously,” Wells said.
However Kevin Walker, chair of the Grand County Democratic Party, said Wells’ criticisms were unwarranted.
“There was very good reason to try to get this on the agenda quickly,” Walker said. “Mary was trying very hard to keep the process more open and she failed but I’m glad that she tried … It was just not a fair criticism and it was distracting from the core issue, which was despite the fact that Grand County keeps voting in favor of this [form of government] over and over again, now we’re being forced to change it.
“Because the local Republican Party filed a petition very early, clearly they knew this was coming down the pipe and clearly they chose not to tell anyone else. They wanted to preserve their advantage. I’m not saying they wrote the bill. Other Republican legislators wrote the bill but I think [the Grand County GOP] took advantage of things in a way that making things less open and less democratic.”
“The State of Utah, with the knowledge of the Grand County Republican Party, moved to take away the rights of the citizens of Grand County to have the form of government they have repeatedly proven they want, is ugly, to say the least,” said McGann. “The study committee should be made up of bi-partisan citizens, not by one party alone. I would be against the Democrats being in charge of the study committee. I would be against either one of them. This is an important thing.”
Day, however, sees no problem with the citizens initiating the process.
“Whom do we answer to?” Day asked. “Do the people have to answer to the council or does the council have to answer to us? I see no problem why citizens ... sign a petition. I believe that our community has been crippled by Grand County’s form of government since 1992 ... the state legislature moved on from our form of government long ago because it’s ineffective and unaccountable. Since then our ability to basically provide quality essential services as a county has completely slipped away ... The bill was introduced in January of this year. It was central to our community to pay attention to those bills. This just goes to show that they got caught unaware because ... there’s a disconnect between Grand County and the state legislature, between Grand County and the federal government.”
Council Member Evan Clapper made a motion to table the resolution. All council members voted in favor and the resolution was tabled, for the time being.
County council business
Council addresses opioid crisis, budget board, rezones
The county is poised to join a class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers for disseminating the false information that opioids were not addictive.
The county council selected citizens Chris Baird and Zach Wojcieszek to sit on the newly formed Grand County Budget Advisory Board, which will report to the council on financial matters. Council Member Patrick Trim will serve as the budget officer, a role previously filled by the elected clerk/auditor.
“The first priority is the salary compensation survey,” Trim said, promising to start work right away.
The council passed two rezones. One changes four acres of general business zone to the highway commercial zone south of town. Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine noted that the change will allow residential units to be built on the ground floor, which is not permitted in the general business zone. The other rezone changed seven acres in Thompson from range grazing to highway commercial. An RV park on the property was allowed as a grandfathered use. With the new zoning, the RV park is back in compliance with current regulations.