Now, the public’s turn to choose

Marathon meetings yield draft for new county council form: 5 part-time members, less compensation, appointed executive

Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee Secretary Marcy Till read a late draft of the committee’s optional plan on Monday, Aug. 12, as members made final changes to the plan. The committee later voted to forward the plan for legal review. Photo by Carter Pape

This report details the final version of the optional plan passed by the Change of Form of Government Study Committee. This related story details what it will take for the plan to go to a vote in 2019.

Members of the study committee waded deep into the weeds at noon on Friday, Aug. 9, and didn’t emerge for nearly nine hours. However, once they did emerge, they had in their collective hand a rough draft of the optional plan for Grand County’s next form of government, and after voting 7-0 to approve the plan Monday, Aug. 12, voters throughout the county will have the chance to ratify the plan in November’s City of Moab general election, a year earlier than expected.

Here are the key elements of the plan decided in previous meetings:

Council chosen in close vote

Members of the Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee, after rigorous debate, agreed 4-3 to choose a council form of government over a commission. This was the only element of the plan that was a closely split decision.

The key difference is authority. Councils legislate while a manager carries executive power. Commissions hold both legislative and executive control, even if they hire a manager to carry out day-to-day operations. The majority of people who responded to a survey opted for the council-manager form.

Five members

The committee in a 6-1 vote chose a five-person council over three, seven or nine members. This fell in line with community surveys. Member Bob Greenberg would have preferred seven members. The council unanimously voted for the council to split authority with an appointed county manager rather than an elected executive.

They also voted 6-1 to have candidates for three seats run at-large and two by district – one would be the City of Moab and the other would be unincorporated Grand County ranging from Spanish Valley to Thompson Springs, Castle Valley and Cisco.

The reasoning here was twofold: One was to give voters the opportunity to vote for four of the five candidates and to separate the districts along rural and urban lines to ensure all five candidates don’t live in the same neighborhood. Another reason was to give residents living both in the city and unincorporated Grand County a voice on the council. Greenberg cast the lone no vote, voicing a preference for more districts.

Here are the key decisions made Friday, Aug. 9:

Lessened compensation

The next council will not earn as much as the current council does. The chair will earn $27,000 and the other members $24,000 annually, an $8,000 and $7,000 reduction, respectively. Member Cricket Green made the motion.

Chair Steve Stocks noted that reducing the number of members by two will save the county $62,000 a year while the pay reduction will save another $86,000.

There was also a philosophical component to the discussion. Stocks resented the current council’s controversial decision to dramatically raise members’ pay last year from a little more than $11,000 to about $31,000 for members and roughly $36,000 for the chair.

The raise was approved following a salary comparison study of similarly situated Utah counties, and the council chose the middle number. That it was their first meaningful raise in years added to the need for such a big jump, county officials argued.

The study committee took steps to avoid similar controversies from occurring in the future. They put into the plan language that provides council members with the same cost of living pay adjustments that county employees receive, meaning that council pay will increase steadily over time to keep up with inflation and other factors.

Because the council will be part time in nature, as is the current council, they are not eligible for health and retirement benefits.

Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird said that while it was his opinion that the current salary for a strictly legislative board is too much, he also said a decent salary would encourage a more diverse crop of candidates. “The harder it is to make a living, the harder it is to run for office,” he said, noting that was one of the discussions held when the current council was contemplating its own pay raise. “The people who run are part of the community. They’re us.”

Member Walt Dabney worried a too-steep decrease would leave only “retired old folks” in the candidate pool. Bob Greenberg made an initial motion to leave the pay as is, for the reasons above and others, but nobody agreed after it was made clear the next council will not have as many responsibilities as does the current one.

The reason the responsibilities will be fewer is that the current council, as reported previously, has been operating more like a commission in recent decades as members retained legislative and executive authority.

Any affirmative votes for a pay raise wouldn’t go into effect until after the next election is held. A simple majority vote is sufficient to approve a pay raise.

Hiring and firing the executive

The study committee decided during its meeting Monday, Aug. 12, to put in its optional plan a rule that, for future councils to hire a county manager, would require a minimum of four votes in favor.

Firing the manager, on the other hand, would only require three votes, but all sitting members of the council must be present for the vote. The plan is meant to keep the executive somewhat insulated from partisan swings that might take place in future elections without making it overly difficult to fire an undesirable hire afterward.

The council may allow the manager to hire an assistant. The council will hold two regular meetings a month. The same rules regarding special meetings in place today will apply in the future. The manager must live close enough to commute to work within an hour. His or her compensation will be based on qualifications and experience and determined by the council and the county’s human resources department.

Three at-large seats, two districted

The committee designated the three at-large seats A, B and C. The City of Moab was designated District 1 and unincorporated Grand County is District 2.

The two districts are not entirely exclusive. The closest reapportionment and district map that expert William Cooper could get to making District 2 strictly rural was more than 99 percent, but at least 250 residents currently living within city limits – albeit rural parts of the city – will be included in District 2 in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act and the constitutional doctrine of “one person, one vote.”

In the initial election in 2020, the three at-large members will run for four-year terms and the district candidates will run for two years so that elections can be staggered. All five seats will run for four-year terms thereafter.

Carter Pape contributed reporting for this story.