On Monday, March 26 the Grand County Council passed a resolution to start a process to change the form of government at the county level, as mandated by a recent state law.
The resolution, which passed on a 4-3 vote, designates Nov. 6 for a special election to ask voters, “Shall a study committee be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in Grand County’s form of government?” Council Members Jaylyn Hawks, Evan Clapper, Greg Halliday and Council Chair Mary McGann voted in favor of the resolution. Council Members Patrick Trim, Rory Paxman and Curtis Wells voted against it.
But there is one problem: a group of citizens affiliated with the Grand County Republican Party have already initiated the process by filing a petition with the county clerk’s office.
It comes down to a disagreement over interpretations of the new law, House Bill 224. One interpretation says that the county must initiate the process. Another interpretation says that the citizens’ petition was filed first and therefore takes precedence, precluding the county from filing its own resolution starting the process.
Though Grand County has a non-partisan political system, the conflict is decidedly partisan. Republican Party Chair Jeramy Day is one of the citizens who filed the petition while Kevin Walker, the head of the Democratic Party, supported the county resolution.
Under H.B. 224, Grand County will be required to choose a new form of government by 2020 or it will automatically become a three-person commission. The law also abolishes term limits and recall elections and requires a partisan political process.
“The narrow question decided today should not have been a partisan issue,” said Kevin Walker. “It was more a legal question … One question is whether we’re going to be able to maintain our non-partisan form of government, which has proven very popular in the county, consistently winning elections. It looks like no matter what happens with this question, the state legislature has taken that away from us for no good reason that I can think of … For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the Republicans are in favor of partisan [politics] and the Democrats like the non-partisan system. I think we’ll thrive in a partisan environment but we think that unaffiliated voters are first-class voters and it should be just as easy for them to participate as someone who is registered with a party.”
Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald was not present at the Monday council meeting. However, county paralegal Danalee Gerber said that Fitzgerald’s office agreed with a third-party analysis — one that said that the county council was required to initiate the change of form of government process. The position was a change from Fitzgerald’s original position, in which he suggested that the county council wait until better legal analysis was available before taking action.
Diana Carroll, the county clerk-auditor, said that she had been in communication with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s office regarding the issue.
“They said that the law is so ambiguous that they would not give me a comment until they reviewed the law a little more. They did recommend that maybe no action be taken until that time,” Carroll said.
Wells took issue with the county’s decision.
“The majority of members of our council are making poor decisions stemming from political pressure and bad legal interpretations. We went from a very clear and straightforward circumstance to a muddy and legally liable situation. The law was amended to protect the citizen’s ability to file petitions and to clean up the code,” Wells said.
“Honestly I don’t see any problem with [the county council] passing a resolution as long as they are willing, once the lieutenant governor’s office chimes in with whatever that may be, once the top attorney in the state of Utah weighs in with which one is the valid process, I would expect that whoever and whatever that is ... if that’s what the attorney general says that the county has to do it, you won’t expect litigation from me,” said Day. “I’m just glad to see the process moving forward. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing is that we start meeting our basic needs like housing and infrastructure. Needs that have been neglected and been known about for years.”