On the evening of Monday, May 14, three speakers laid out what our current form of government is and how it could change under House Bill 224, a new law that is bringing some forms of government such as Grand County’s back into the state-approved fold. Former Grand County Council Member Chris Baird explained the current seven-member council form, while Gavin Anderson, an attorney in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, spelled out the four options that H.B. 224 allows for forms of government. Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald spoke to the legality of H.B. 224, recall elections and other disputed issues.
One determination alluded to at the meeting is that H.B. 224 is, most likely, constitutional. Fitzgerald said that an independent law firm has analyzed the law and determined that the state can, indeed, require Grand County to change its form of government.
“The likelihood of it being found unconstitutional, that the [Utah Legislature] is forcing us to do this, is extremely low and we need to get on board with this change that is being required of us,” Fitzgerald said. He encouraged county residents to vote in favor of the study committee if and when that question comes up on the November ballot. “Please let your neighbors know that you need to vote for that study group to take place so that ... the county has the best chance of having something functional as well as decided by [voters],” Fitzgerald told the audience.
Baird explained that our current system was established in 1992 and has been on the books as an option since 1973. It involves a seven-person council without a specified executive. “One of the biggest issues we’ve had with this particular form of government over the years is that the function of the county executive has never been explicitly specified either in the General County modified statute, nor in our plan for government. So it’s been generally assumed over the years that the county executive is the county council, in similar fashion to an expanded commission,” Baird said.
Anderson explained the four options in front of the county: a three-person commission, an expanded (five- or seven-member) commission, a council with an elected executive or a council with an appointed executive.
“The biggest decision Grand County will need to make is whether your form of government will have a separation of powers or whether it will be governed by county commission, which mixes executive branch and legislative branch powers in one body,” Anderson said.
He added that an expanded commission is an option to combat the problems that can arise in a three-member commission, which includes deal making and the ease of two members possibly “ganging up” on a third commissioner.
Anderson also explained the legislative and executive powers and responsibilities that accompany each official in each type of government. In his 40 years of county government experience, Anderson said, separation of powers is “not too big a deal in county government…You already have in place vertical checks and balances from the Utah Legislature ... [state code] governs very closely what counties can and can’t do. You also have significant horizontal checks and balances at least to the executive branch in that you’ve got these other independent elected officials who run the police force, run the legal department, who do budgeting and accounting ... it would be very hard for a county commission — the no-separation of powers form of government — to create a totalitarian dictatorship in the State of Utah,” Anderson said.
H.B. 224, Anderson explained, forces Grand County to specify an executive. “You have to expressly and specifically address in your optional plan who holds executive branch powers,” he said.
Anderson said that recall elections, nonpartisan elections and term limits would all have to go away as well — with one caveat. Recall elections for high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance are legal under state law. It is only political recall that will no longer be allowed.
As it is, political recall may be illegal anyway, said Fitzgerald. “There are currently several petitions for recalls for this election coming up that I heard were out-and-about ... and the other issue we’re looking at is whether or not those will be able to go forward,” Fitzgerald said.
Baird said the most similar options to its current form of government for Grand County would be the council with an appointed executive or an expanded commission. “Our current form of government is similar to a modern council-manager form of government in that the role of the council is predominantly legislative. It is unlike a council-manager form of government in that there is no designated county executive, and executive power is delegated via policy as opposed to state law … The current form of government is similar to an expanded commission, however, in that both the executive and legislative authority are vested in the governing body. So Grand County Council still operates as if the executive authority rests with the council and in fact, the council chair signs all documents that require the signature of the chief administrative officer or the chief executive officer,” Baird said.
Anderson left the audience with a few words of advice. “You’re one of the few counties that’s got a viable two-party system, even though you’re nonpartisan and you’ve got a very strong independent base here in Grand County, so I admire that. I also admire the fact that you’ve taken a form of government that’s really just a little bit screwy and actually made it work well for 25 years ... Even though you have to change your form of government and darn it, you’re going to have to give up nonpartisan [politics], it’s not the end of the world ... there’s no perfect form of government for Grand County but there’s no terrible form. Just keep good people in office to the extent that you can and try to keep hard feelings in check.”