Governance debate has been decades long

The council-versus-commission debate has been going on for decades in Grand County, with advocates for the commission form arguing their way is more efficient and holds members more accountable to voters than does a council form of government.

So it was more than a little ironic to hear Salt Lake City attorney Gavin Anderson on Friday, July 26, advise the Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee that the current Grand County Council has operated more like a commission since the early 1990s.

That’s because county councils in Utah split power with councils acting as legislators with either an appointed manager or an elected executive. Commissions, on the other hand, hold both legislative and executive powers. They can and often do hire managers to carry out policy, but they cede none of that authority.

In Grand County, which has an administrator with little clout to make decisions independently from the council, members routinely handle both legislative and executive matters – such as when a citizen contacts a council member regarding a neighbor who, for example, is illegally burning trash. The item would then be up for a discussion at the next meeting.

Be that as it may, committee member Jeramy Day advocated for the commission form of government at Friday’s meeting, listing myriad justifications ranging from his opinion that commissions are more efficient than councils, to the perception that Utah lawmakers respect commissions more than councils – a position attorney Anderson supported, saying it’s all “personality driven” and that council members “tend to not be as involved as commissioners.”

Anderson, who the council hired earlier in July to draft the next form of government, said councils also “carry less weight” with the Utah Association of Counties, which provides lobbying and other support to member counties.

His comments led to a discussion on whether the committee could require a commission to hire a professional manager, something Anderson said would be unusual, but one that the courts would likely support since voters would have approved the measure.

Member Bob Greenberg noted the Utah Legislature is a council, while executive power lies with the governor’s office. He also noted that other county elected officers and department heads pleaded with him and Member Judy Carmichael during interviews to “please put a professional manager between us and the politicians.”

Chair Steve Stocks, who also favored a commission, said no form of government is perfect. “Problems always arise with personalities,” he said. After Greenberg made a motion to approve a council-manager form, Stocks said the current housing climate makes it difficult for government or private companies to “get people with skills to come to Moab. There’s no guarantee they will mesh” if they do come, he added. Day said commissions are more “intuitive” and commissioners are more accountable.

Committee Member Marcy Till observed, “I want government not to be intuitive, but responsive…Council people can be responsive to the citizens.”

Carmichael, like Greenberg a former council member, supported the council form of government, saying she has experienced issues with past commissions. The vote passed with a thin edge going to Greenberg, Dabney, Till and Carmichael. Day, Stocks and Member Cricket Green voted no.

The study committee next meets at noon Friday, Aug. 2 inside council chambers at the Grand County Courthouse. Have a question or comment? Send an email to [email protected].