Form of Government: Sloan says ‘Major issues, easy fixes’

Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan holds up a file containing her review of an optional plan for a state-mandated change to the county’s form of government, which she rejected earlier this month as being out of compliance with current laws. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Christina Sloan at Tuesday’s Grand County Council meeting explained her findings that a proposed optional plan for a new form of government did not comply with Utah laws or the State Constitution.

The Grand County Attorney said the four noncompliant provisions in the plan were “all major issues and all easy fixes.” The Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee hammered out the optional plan in a series of marathon meetings in an effort to make the deadline to qualify for November’s general election in the form of a ballot question.

“Gavin did a great job,” said Sloan, mentioning Gavin Anderson, the attorney the committee hired to draft the plan. She noted she and Anderson were in close contact throughout her review and while they didn’t agree on all of her findings, Anderson told members of the study committee who were upset over her determination that her analysis was complex and comprehensive, an effort the county should be grateful for.

Sloan as county attorney was mandated by statute to not only review proposed changes to the form of government, she also was obliged to provide recommendations to “cure” out of compliance provisions.

Sloan and the study committee will meet on Sept. 27 to discuss the four issues. Three could be remedied through rewording – they involve council oversight of the county manager, election dates, and provisions regarding the removal of a council member.

The element Sloan said is the most significant is her determination the study committee did not have the authority to designate specific voting districts in the plan, but could only decide whether districts would be created.

This was easily the most vigorously discussed item when the study committee met Sept. 6, and it could prove to be a wrench in the works going forward as most members believed Sloan misread the law. They believe lawmakers vested more authority into such committees than merely as “advisory” in nature.

Then again, Sloan said even this issue could be resolved if the committee rebrands the redistricting portion of the plan as a recommendation. The plan as it stands now calls for three of the five council seats to run at large with two running by district – one that would be largely City of Moab and the other the remainder of Grand County.

“Unfortunately, most people were hoping to get on with this … it’s kind of a head scratcher,” said Member Curtis Wells, who noted Anderson was “deemed an expert” on Utah form of government laws.

“I didn’t make this decision in a bubble,” said Sloan, who advised the council she reached out to constitutional scholars and other experts during her research – including Anderson – and she said it isn’t uncommon for “attorneys to disagree” She also noted she agreed to review the plan on short notice. She had about three weeks when state law provides her with twice that amount of time.

Aside from the redistricting question, other major elements of the plan remain intact. It shall be a five-member partisan council with an appointed manager. This will provide a separation of powers with elected officials serving as the legislature and the manager as the executive.

The study committee by law must conclude its work by early March. Voters would weigh in on the optional plan in the 2020 election. If it passes elections would be held in the subsequent election. If it fails Grand County’s form of government would default to a three-person commission, the members of which would have both legislative and executive power.

Sloan said Anderson has already proposed language to potentially cure the noncompliant provisions and study committee Member Bob Greenberg, who made it clear he was speaking for himself and not the committee as a whole, said he believes the committee will focus on addressing Sloan’s concerns rather than opening up the plan to major revisions, but he also said the committee could have easily made the 2019 election deadline had it not been delayed by a lawsuit that locked up the process for months.

The local Republican Party filed the lawsuit against Grand County late last year, after voters approved the establishment of a study committee in November’s election, in an effort to control the process in changing the form of government. Seventh Judicial District Judge Don Torgerson ruled in Grand County’s favor in January. The study committee met for the first time in March.