In an April 17 letter to Dan Burton, the chief of policy for the AG’s office, the council posed the question of whether it is constitutional to force a county to change its form of government — and asked if a council’s action takes precedence over a citizen-filed notice of intent to gather signatures that was submitted prior to their adoption of a resolution to initiate the process.
The question of whether to move forward with a committee to study the change of government will be presented to voters in Grand County in November, specifically, “Shall a study committee be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in Grand County’s form of government?” The council, via resolution, approved that ballot question during their March 26 meeting.
Council Members Jaylyn Hawks, Evan Clapper, Greg Halliday and Council Chair Mary McGann voted in favor of the resolution calling for the ballot question. Council Members Patrick Trim, Rory Paxman and Council Vice-Chair Curtis Wells voted against it.
McGann appeals to Utah AG
According to Burton, the process of reviewing the constitutionality of the law — and whether the citizens of Grand County or the county council are in the driver’s seat should it be deemed lawful — is currently underway in Salt Lake City.
Burton told The Times-Independent his involvement began when McGann approached his office as a private citizen, rather than an elected official. Under Utah law, Burton said, his office is not authorized to offer legal opinions to entities outside of government. He added that the council subsequently sent him the April 17 letter requesting the opinion of Attorney General Sean Reyes and his team.
“A few weeks ago, Mary McGann contacted our office about this and she asked us if we could tell her whether or not the bill was constitutional, and if it was constitutional, who would control the process,” Burton said. “I told her, ‘I can’t answer any questions that come from the public.’ We are the counsel to state agencies and the executive branch. So I told her if she would send us a question, asked officially by the council, we could consider looking at it. So it appears she did that, she went back to her council and they sent me a formal letter asking to look at these two questions.”
Burton said he has forwarded the questions on to the AG’s chief civil deputy and is not certain of where the issue stands at this time.
“I’m not sure where we are at or if [the chief deputy] is going to answer the question,” Burton said. “We’re not under any obligation to answer it ... the status now is that we have received the question from the county council and we will be meeting soon to identify whether we want to address it or not.”
County council fireworks
During the May 1 regular meeting of the Grand County Council, citizen Don Oblak spoke during citizens to be heard. In his statement, he addressed Wells regarding the vice-chair’s support for H.B. 224.
“Curtis Wells has failed in his responsibility to the county council by deliberately withholding vital information about House Bill 224,” Oblak said. “Although he was elected under our current, non-partisan form of government, he is apparently incapable of carrying out his duties without injecting his own Republican politics. In doing so he has failed the citizens of Grand County, who have affirmed three times, by wide margins, our form of government.
“[Wells] has said that his efforts in support of House Bill 224 were made as a private citizen, but it is clear from a statement made by [Utah Association of Counties] president Cindy Bulloch, referring to ‘Council Member Wells,’ that she considers his presence to be an official one at their meetings. [Wells’] comments in defending his actions are very revealing in an excerpt from last week’s [The Times-Independent].”
At that point Oblak asked the council to remove Wells from his position as a representative to UAC and from his seat on Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments. Wells responded to Oblak during his opportunity to deliver council member reports, saying he wanted to be clear about his involvement in H.B. 224.
“There is a ... misunderstanding of exactly how this works,” Wells said. “I was appointed to the association of local governments by this body, as your representative on that body. That body appointed me to the board of UAC, and the board of UAC does not handle legislative issues. The big reason I have been so forthcoming with my involvement is it’s very inappropriate to blame UAC if you disagree with the bill. They hold legislative meetings every Thursday and any elected official from any county is welcome to attend, vote and take a position. I’ve chosen to attend those meetings ... I’ve done so because it’s important. That is the area where those things are addressed. This narrative that I have somehow betrayed the county, frankly I disagree.”
Wells added that he was at the Utah Legislature in February before the bill was released and, while in Salt Lake City, he said he placed a call to McGann notifying her of a change of government bill he was aware of.
“The fact that I placed that call before anyone was aware of it ... it hadn’t even gone to committee ... is much more than anyone should have expected of me,” Wells said.
What happens next?
Gov. Gary Herbert signed House Bill 224 into law on March 15. It requires a change in the current form of government in Grand County. The bill mandates that if voters do not approve the formation of a study committee to adopt one of four approved forms of government, Grand County will devolve automatically to a three-member county commission.
Voters chose Grand County’s current form of government, a seven-member council, in 1992.
If voters approve the formation of a study committee, a five-member appointment council will determine the membership of a seven-member study committee. The first member of the appointment council will come via a consensus decision by the county’s legislative representatives, Sen. David Hinkins, Rep. Christine Watkins and Rep. Carl Albrecht. The Grand County Council would select the second member — and the third pick would be granted to any petitioner that successfully files a notice of intent to gather signatures and submit those signatures for certification to the Grand County Clerk’s Office.
According to Clerk/Auditor Diana Carroll, former county council member Lynn Jackson and a group of four others affiliated with the Grand County Republican Party filed a notice of intent to gather signatures for a petition to drive the process on March 15. That first petition has been certified, according to Carroll.
The sponsors of the first notice of intent are Jackson, Grand County Republican Party Chair Jeramy Day, and former county council members Gene Ciarus, Jerry McNeely and Manuel Torres.
Two other notices of intent, one filed by Democratic Party co-chair Kevin Walker, and a second, notarized version filed by Jackson, are currently in limbo while the AG’s office weighs in on the legal process to follow.