There’s the monetary expense, of course, and then there’s the political cost. Both need to be weighed as we deal with the ramifications of the Utah Legislature’s House Bill 224, which has become a household word among civic circles the last couple of months.
A quick review of the matter, in case there are readers new to this contentious issue, is that the Utah Legislature, with the support of at least one Grand County Council member and several former conservative council members, passed a law that seems to make our form of county government out of compliance with state law. In simple terms, our seven-member council, which was formed more than 25 years ago and supported by the majority of voters in repeat ballot questions, has stayed in place regardless of state law because it’s been “grandfathered” in. The new law outlaws grandfathered forms, and will make voters choose from options that don’t include the current method.
The political jockeying that has occurred in the wake of H.B. 224 has defined the nature and values of our disparate council members. If we didn’t know who was representing us prior to H.B. 224, we surely know it now. And that’s good. There’s ample evidence that the passage of H.B. 224 took place while most of us weren’t looking. Most folks were just fine with our seven-member council, but a handful of guys didn’t like it, and they set out to make a change. It has been alleged that their work with the Utah Association of Counties and our leaders on Salt Lake City’s Capitol Hill have sought to bring back a smaller commission, perhaps three or five members, possibly working for our county in a full-time capacity.
What happened quietly is now echoing loudly throughout our county. Voters will go to the polls this fall and they’ll decide what kind of leaders they want. I’ll be excited to see how the chips fall. What initially appeared to be a conservative move to wrest control from progressives is bolstering all facets of the political spectrum. And it’s calling into question the motives and honesty of our elected leaders. In hard dollars, it’s tough to say whether a smaller council would result in a monetary savings. Our seven part-time council members are paid less than $1,000 per month, and our county administrator is paid somewhere north of $80,000 per year, not including benefits. Exact salary figures are anything but transparent on the state’s web site. The mission of this current form of government is to provide “a citizen body whose members serve on a part-time basis primarily in a legislative, policy-making role, and membership on the council is not intended to be a full-time position involving extensive day-to-day administration oversight of county operations and functions,” according to documents supplied by County Clerk Diana Carroll.
The proponents opting for change want to change all of that. They want full-time decision-makers on the county dole, even though most of our current commissioners have other jobs. They want to meddle — er, manage — in a full-time manner with all of the county’s departments, even though most of our elected department heads are doing pretty well with their own staffs. Some county jobs could be eliminated if we have full-time council members or commissioners.
The ramifications of such a change could be huge. It could shift the balance of power among conservatives and progressives, and it could place power in the hands of folks who don’t need the resources of another job to make ends meet. I think there are folks on both sides of the political aisle who can monetarily afford to be full-time commissioners, but such a job might reduce the pool of expertise and balance that community-based workers bring to the table. A full-time county job would omit the possibility that someone who crunches numbers for the hospital, or a person who runs a touring company, could also be a council member.
The Grand County League of Women Voters is hosting a forum Monday at 6 p.m. in Star Hall to help people discuss and understand the fallout from H.B. 224. It promises to be an informative and lively opportunity for our community to debate the points in the light of day. Until now, the matter has used a lot of ink on our pages, both in news stories and letters to the editor.
Not much has happened face to face except at county council meetings. This event, for those who choose to participate, can bring us together as a community to discern how to proceed considering past actions by a handful of our state and local lawmakers who crafted this law. Hopefully it will help to reveal the many costs of H.B. 224.