Bill seeks to limit possible government forms for rural counties

Meanwhile, Stocks, Carmichael, Howe join Dabney, Day on appointment council

By Nathaniel Smith

The Times-Independent

Grand County’s change in government process is moving forward, but a proposed bill could reduce the available options from four to two. Since Grand County has already started the change in government process, Council Member Curtis Wells has requested an amendment that would exempt it from the bill.

Former San Juan County Commissioner turned state Rep. Phil Lyman sponsored the Form of County Governments Amendment bill or HB 257. The bill would limit the county executive and council form and the council-manager form of government to counties of the first, second or third class. Grand is a fifth-class county, so those two options would not be available if the bill passes. Therefore, only the three-person county commission form or the expanded county commission form would be allowed for Grand County.

In an email to The Times-Independent, Lyman explained the reasoning behind his bill: “The intent of HB 257 is part of a larger push for the State Legislature to engage more deliberately with the state’s subunits. In the code right now there are a myriad of county forms that are not used and should be taken off the books. As the legislature works to provide more support and structure to the counties, many feel that the council form of government is not practical for small counties. This has nothing to do with Grand or any other specific county except that they may be effected [sic].”

If the bill passes and Grand County is not granted an exemption, then the study committee will only be able to recommend changing to either a three-person county commission or an extended five- or seven-member commission. Unlike the council forms of government, the county commission form consolidates legislative and executive powers.

Grand County’s current nonpartisan and part-time seven-member council, which voters approved in 1992, handles legislative duties and hires a council administrator for the executive role. Voters rejected proposals to change forms in 2004 and again in 2012, but last year House Bill 224 became law and forced a restructuring.

Utah state code is more detailed on the rules governing commissions compared to councils. It sets the term-length for commissioners at four years and stipulates that they will be elected at-large in staggered terms. As opposed to Grand County’s current form, term limits are not in play and recall petitions are not permitted. When it comes to councils, the qualifications, manner of election, term of office and compensation are left up to the county. Theoretically, the optional plan recommended by Grand County’s study committee could modify the provisions governing commissioner elections.

Speaking from his experience on the Grand County Council, Wells doesn’t disagree with the basic idea behind Lyman’s bill – that council forms are not suited to rural counties – but he still requested Grand County be exempted.

“There’s a position by rural county commissioners that council forms of government are inappropriate and ineffective in rural Utah … I’m of the same opinion personally,” Wells said. “Seven members is far too much, relating to efficiency and practicality,” he said.

Lyman’s bill would prevent Grand County from selecting a council form of government, but Wells thinks Grand should still have the same four options that were available when it began the study committee process. “My hope and understanding is that the bill won’t affect us,” said Wells, “Otherwise it adds confusion to a process that’s already very confusing.”

Wells called an amendment exempting counties that have already begun the change in government process as “a sensible compromise” that would allow state legislators to “move forward and accomplish whatever they feel like they need to with the bill” while not infringing on Grand County’s local process. “I think the community wants to see that discussion about the differences in these forms … so it would make sense for us to not be wrapped up into this bill,” Wells said.

He also echoed the final sentiment from Lyman’s statement, saying, “The bill, as it stands now, is not really directed toward Grand County’s situation.”

Grand County Council Chair Evan Clapper expressed his opposition to Lyman’s bill, even with an amendment that would exempt Grand County. “Being exempt would be great and all, but that still doesn’t make me like the bill,” he said. Clapper decried the “lack of local control” he said the bill would lead to. “I don’t really see why other folks are interested in what form of government citizens choose to be represented by,” he said. “I trust the citizens’ opinion to choose what they think is best.”

Clapper also criticized the differentiation between small and large counties created by the bill. “Why should bigger counties be allowed the freedom to choose their form of government?” He asked. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Council Member Mary McGann shared Clapper’s question. She said she couldn’t think of a “single reason” why smaller counties would be given fewer options. “Why do we have less choice because we’re small?” McGann asked. She strongly disagreed with the reasoning provided by Lyman and Wells that council forms are too slow or inefficient for small counties, citing Grand’s strong economy compared to other rural counties and the progress that has been made on the uranium tailings pile as evidence of how effective a council can be.

McGann identified a level of hypocrisy in the situation, noting how state lawmakers complain about federal government overreach and then overreach in local politics. “The state is deciding what our form of government will be … not the people who live in Grand County,” McGann said.

The appointment council that will decide the members of the study committee was finalized on Friday, Feb. 15. The Grand County Council selected Walt Dabney to serve on the appointment council last fall. The three state legislators that represent Grand County selected Jeramy Day following the resignation of Rex Tanner. Dabney and Day then selected Judy Carmichael and Stephen Stocks to join the appointment council. Following an impasse regarding the fifth and final member, the three state legislators selected Cole Howe. Day heads the Grand County Republican Party.

The appointment council will meet at least once before March 16 to appoint the seven-person study committee. Notably, four members of the appointment council are registered as Republicans. Stephen Stocks, who is not affiliated with any party, is the only exception.

According to the Grand County Clerk, the majority of active Grand County voters are unaffiliated, with 2,183 subscribing to no political party. There are 1,767 Republicans and 987 Democrats. The numbers drop significantly after that, with 141 voters registered with the Independent American Party, 41 are Libertarians, 15 are Green Party members, eight are Constitution Party voters and four are registered as members of United Utah. Statutes regulating change in form of government clearly require members of the seven-person study committee that will formulate Grand County’s next form of government represent a broad cross-section of the county.

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Lyman pulled his bill from consideration in the House Political Subdivisions Committee. Lyman said he decided to pull the bill so he could try to incorporate “a few amendments” that stemmed from input given by various counties. He said there is not currently language to exempt Grand County, but “there is a provision that allows counties who have a process in place to continue that process,” he said. Lyman thought the bill would be back on the committee’s docket and ready to present by Wednesday afternoon, after The Times-Independent went to press.

Another Bill of

Local Interest

Street-Legal ATVs (SB 44)

Moab residents are likely familiar with the noise caused by ATVs and UTVs driving on city streets, so a new bill that seeks to lessen restrictions on where those vehicles can operate is sure to spark local interest. SB 44, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, would modify provisions related to the operation of street-legal ATVs.

The bill would limit the ability of local authorities to determine which roads allow ATVs, and instead delineates exact criteria for which roads are off limits. All types of all-terrain vehicles are already prohibited on highways that are part of an interstate system, which is defined as any highway officially designated by the department of transportation and included as part of the national interstate and defense highways.

Replacing the ability for authorities to close portions of a highway to street-legal ATVs is the restriction that ATVs are not allowed on highways in first class counties that are both near a grade separated portion of the highway and have a speed limit higher than 50 miles per hour. Since Highway 191 is not part of an interstate system and Grand is not a first-class county, the bill would effectively allow street-legal ATVs to travel on any road in the Moab area except I-70 and prevent local governing bodies from changing that.

In the section of code that governs what makes an ATV street-legal, there is the requirement that the vehicle include a “seat designed for passengers.” The proposed bill would eliminate the provision that a seat designed for passengers includes a footrest and handhold for each passenger.

As written, the bill would reduce local control over ATVs, but Moab City Manager David Everitt said he has heard the bill’s sponsor is open to an amendment. Wells was also aware of an effort driven by the Utah League of Cities and Towns to amend the bill to give municipalities more discretion about which roads allow ATVs, but Wells said he thought that change “seems unlikely.” Fillmore’s bill passed the Senate with 28 of 29 possible votes, received a favorable recommendation from the House Transportation Committee and was awaiting a vote as of Tuesday, Feb. 19.