Governance body seeks to save other counties from Grand’s experience

A letter to state lawmakers

Nov. 1, Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee Member Judy Carmichael reviews the draft of a letter outlining ways to improve state law regarding how counties may change their governance forms. Photo by Doug McMurdo

The “Grand County Experience” has not been a good one for members of the Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee.

Not willing to merely complain to lawmakers, members offered possible remedies to a host of flaws they say are contained in Chapter 17-52a, known colloquially as HB224, in a recent letter sent to Utah legislators and a spate of other people.

The more than 1,000-word letter was drafted and mailed out Friday, Nov. 1. In it, two primary problems with the current law are identified. The law has been changed periodically over the years and not all of the problems are the result of HB224, the 2018 bill that, once enacted, compelled Grand and Morgan counties to change their respective forms of government in order to comply with state laws regarding allowable forms of government.

The first problem is that the law is “far too complex,” especially as it pertains to how the process is initiated. Secondly, more specificity is required regarding how much influence an existing county government should have in preparing and implementing a plan.

The first issue became obvious early on, when the Grand County Republican Party filed a lawsuit against Grand County in an attempt to control the process. The litigation was settled in Grand County’s favor, but the four-month delay effectively took away any chance the plan could get done in time to be on this year’s general election ballot.

Despite the delay, the committee was able to draft an optional plan near the end of summer, and that’s when the second problem surfaced. The law requires county attorneys to review the plan to ensure it conforms to the law.

Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan determined that the optional plan was fatally flawed because she found that only existing county governing boards have the authority to draw up redistricting maps and to establish election dates.

Sloan agreed that the study committee has the authority to decide whether there could be voting districts or whether candidates could be at-large. (It was ultimately decided that the five-person council-manager form of government would have two district seats, one primarily the City of Moab and the other all of unincorporated Grand County, and three seats that would be at-large.)

The study committee vehemently disagreed with Sloan’s conclusions, reasoning that something as important as district boundaries would be an “essential part” of the optional plan. More importantly, they agree that the existing county form of government should have no role in the new plan.

The committee in its letter acknowledged that their law was unclear and suggests lawmakers clearly vest that power in study committees.

The issues are important, especially for those who are eager to do away with the current form of government. Because of the delay, voters will not be able to vote on the optional plan until 2020. If it passes, they won’t be able to vote on candidates until 2022, meaning the new form of government won’t hold its first meeting until January 2023.

The timeline will hold true regardless of what voters decide. If the ballot question fails, the form of government will default to a three-person county commission, which would hold both legislative and executive power.

“This unfortunate delay can be avoided for other counties in the future by simplifying the procedures for starting the process and by specifying the degree of involvement of the existing county government in drafting the optional plan,” reads the letter.

The study committee has largely addressed three of Sloan’s four findings. Members will tackle the most contentious issue – who has the power to establish new voting district boundaries – when it meets Nov. 15.