Politics were more efficient when one dominant commissioner and a sidekick wielded nearly dictatorial power over county affairs. Sweetheart deals were handed out to commissioners, their friends and families. Only chumps worried about conflicts of interest. People largely accepted that nobody would bother to do all the work of governing unless he stood to profit in some way, and so we routinely lived with no-bid contracts, backroom deals and other scandals that would be front page news today.
Politics were a lot more entertaining when one or two commissioners were free to follow their whims without regard for different opinions. That is how flag-waving commissioners and county employees made national news by bulldozing their way into Mill Creek and Negro Bill canyons in 1980.
Since two commissioners could not legally get together to discuss county business outside a formal meeting, public discussion was stifled and secret meetings were the norm. It was easy to wander far off on the wrong track, as the commissioners did in 1988, secretly negotiating a deal to pin Grand County’s future on toxic waste incineration and then brazenly trying to push the deal through in defiance of citizen opposition. That year, 73 percent of the registered voters turned out to resoundingly reject the incinerator and throw the commissioners out of office.
In truth, though, the defect was not in the particular people but in the structure of the government, which invited the abuses and was not representative enough for a place as diverse as Grand County. By 1992, all the problems were back with a vengeance. Right after building the Old Spanish Trail Arena with borrowed money, the commissioners pushed through an unpopular courthouse and jail construction project rife with insider deals and, in spectacular mismanagement, they signed more than a hundred change orders with contractors that nobody was tracking. They were also spending $50,000 a month of the county’s mineral lease money on a study for a road through the Book Cliffs, while the hospital was about to be shut down. When citizens grumbled about a recall election, the commissioners infamously replied that recalls were illegal in Utah.
What the commissioners forgot was that the voters could change the entire form of government, and that is what 76 percent of the county’s registered voters turned out to decide in the fall of 1992. We selected the current council form with five districts and two at-large members, all supported by a professional administrator. Sam Taylor observed, “ We… may have come up with one of the most democratic forms of government in the state.” (Deseret News, Nov. 3, 1993)
As a parting gift to the new council, the outgoing commissioners approved a budget that was $450,000 in the red and appointed a Grand County Roads Special Service District staffed by their friends and tasked with continuing the money hemorrhage on the Book Cliffs Road. When the new council set a tax rate to raise the money for the budget their predecessors had approved, commission supporters incited a taxpayer rebellion and forced a (unsuccessful) recall election.
The council turned out to be a lot less entertaining than the commission. The new administrator quickly found that the savings from putting the county’s health insurance out to bid more than paid his salary. The road boondoggle was stopped and the hospital saved. The courthouse got built on time and under budget. Spending was slashed and a budget surplus steadily built up. Initiatives were debated in public and sensible compromises worked out. It has never been perfect, but it is an incomparably better, more representative government than what it replaced.
But now, people who long for the time when they were in charge want to change back to a three-person county commission, and Utah’s laws favor them to succeed unless people get out to vote against the study committee during the November election.
It would be a dismaying surprise for most of us to experience a return to the bad old days of insider-run county commission government in Grand County. We urge Independents, Republicans and Democrats to vote against this bad idea – the proposed study committee – on this November’s ballot.
Bill Hedden, Bob Greenberg, John Hartley, Suzanne Mayberry and Al McLeod are all former Grand County Council members and current residents of Grand County.