No government form ballot question in 2019 after county attorney rejects plan

Jeramy Day was an outspoken critic of Sloan’s decision. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Any hopes voters in Grand County would weigh in on a proposed new form of government in November’s general election were dashed Sept. 5, when Christina Sloan issued her review of the plan and determined several provisions violate Utah statutes or the state and U.S. constitutions.

Friday, Sept. 6 was the absolute deadline to approve the plan and still make the 2019 ballot. In turn, Sloan was to be subjected to withering criticism or lavish praise the next day, when the Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee met to discuss her findings. In the end, the committee deemed all but one of her findings relatively minor.

Sloan, who as county attorney is mandated by Utah statute to review the plan for a new form of government, cited several statutes and a variety of case law in determining that the plan’s establishment of two voting districts, “ … illegally usurps redistricting power that is reserved to the State Legislature in the Utah Constitution and delegated to the county council by Utah statute.”

In other words, the responsibility for redistricting lies with the current council, according to Sloan – a contention virtually every member of the study committee vehemently disputed. Member Jeramy Day was particularly livid, saying the law governing how counties change a form of government make it clear the current council stay clear of the proceedings.

Day said Sloan’s finding reeked of politics, and Member Cricket Green speculated a member of the current Grand County Council was behind Sloan’s findings because he or she wanted to finish a full term.

“This feels like a power grab and I want to get that on record,” said Day.

A potential lawsuit was discussed, and the committee argued whether or not it should go into closed executive session to discuss that possibility, a move that members ultimately voted down 1-5-1 vote, with Chair Steve Stocks voting to go into executive session and Day abstaining. Member Bob Greenberg said he believed a political solution could be found by asking the current council to pass a resolution that it will follow. Ultimately, the committee decided to meet with Sloan on Sept. 27 and work through the issues one by one.

The stickler will undoubtedly be the question of which entity gets to control redistricting. In this case, it’s the question behind the question that matters: How much authority is vested in the study committee?

Sloan sees the study committee as no more than an advisory committee, while members of the study committee and attorney Gavin Anderson, whom it retained to draft the optional plan, believe their authority goes beyond an advisory capacity – with the only higher power in the hands of voters who would approve or reject the plan.

It is the “notion of what can and can’t be done,” said Anderson, noting the communication between the Utah legislative and executive branch is “over the county, not under the county.” Anderson said Sloan feels “extremely strongly” about the redistricting issue and, he said she “did a careful and complex analysis.”

Anderson also said every county that has gone through a change in form of government had districts established by a study committee, with the exception of Morgan County, which has a form of government question on its November ballot. Grand County, itself, changed from a commission to a council in 1992, with a study committee determining the districts.

Anderson shared an opinion widely held when he pointed out HB 224 “is not a model of clarity,” but he agreed with Day that it is “very clear” the current county government has “nothing to do with the optional plan.” He said a possible resolution would be to make the redistricting a recommendation.

“We were empowered by the legislature,” said Day. “Not the county. We represent the county, not the council because this government is going to change regardless.”

Following Sloan’s decision, voters will vote yes or no on the optional plan in 2020 with the first elections in 2022. If they vote no, the form of government will automatically revert to a three-person commission, which means those three people would have executive and legislative control over county government, a form that was unpopular with residents who took the committee’s surveys.

Anderson clearly disagreed with Sloan, saying the study committee is akin to being the “founders and framers of the county constitution,” but he also noted Sloan did a good job. Lawyers, he pointed out, often disagree with one another over what a law means.

Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird also believes the study committee has more power than Sloan believes, but he questioned how he could run an election with no clear direction on districts. The committee hired a redistricting expert to draw maps of the two districts, one that would be comprised of City of Moab residents and one that would be the rest of the county with a small number of city residents included to meet the constitutional doctrine of one person, one vote.

“This feels like politics,” said Day. Members, however, agreed that no members of the current council have discussed the issue of prolonging the study committee’s work to keep the question off the 2019 ballot. He reiterated his contention the committee should go to court and Stocks suggested they move into closed session.

Member Marcy Till suggested the study committee give Sloan “the same consideration we have given each other.”

“We don’t need to impugn anyone’s motives,” agreed Member Bob Greenberg. “I’ve heard no evidence anyone on the council is attempting to meddle and I don’t think the rest of us have, either.”

“This is not the time,” said Member Walt Dabney. “We need to stay steady and we need to be real sure before we vote. We might not be able to legally meet in closed session.”

Anderson would not speak to the issue, saying he was uncomfortable, because he was unsure whether attorney-client privilege extended to him giving legal advice. He pointed out his contract with the committee calls on him to draft the optional plan.

Till said the “elephant in the room” that hadn’t been discussed was her recollection Sloan once said she didn’t think a council-manager form of government was right for Grand County, leading to possible bias on the county attorney’s part, but she also said Sloan’s review was “very thorough” and that she was “grateful we have a dedicated and professional county attorney.”