While Utah County residents will decide in November whether their specific county should transition away from a three-person commission, the Utah State Legislature may make that decision for them.
A bill introduced by Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, on Wednesday would require any county in the state with a population of more than 500,000 “to operate under the county executive and council form or the council-manager form of government.”
Utah and Salt Lake counties are the only two in the state with populations over half a million, and Salt Lake County currently operates under a mayor-council system.
House Bill 257 would require the county legislative body (in the case of Utah County, the Utah County Commission) to initiate the process to change the form of government no later than July 1, 2021.
Two optional plans would be placed on the ballot in the November 2021 election and residents would choose between an executive-council or a council-manager form of government. The difference between an executive, or mayor, form of leadership and a manager form is that a mayor would be elected while a manager would be appointed by the council.
On Jan. 7, the commission voted 2-1 in favor of a resolution that would put an optional plan on the ballot in November to switch to a full-time mayor elected at-large and five-member, part-time county council elected in geographic districts.
In an interview, Commissioner Bill Lee said that he didn’t understand why a bill like this would be introduced when the county is already considering changing its form of government, adding that legislators shouldn’t try to “force it one way or another.”
“I don’t understand why we’re trying to guide it or skew the perspective with it when we’re in that process right now trying to see which way it goes,” said Lee. “I think we should go through that process first.”
While the bill doesn’t mention any county in particular, Lee said he felt the bill was aimed at Utah County.
“This bill is targeted,” he said. “It’s targeted to Utah County and Utah County only.”
In a Daily Herald op-ed published last July, Brammer called the county’s current form of government “problematic” and said that, in light of the rapidly growing population, the county needs to switch to a form of government that separates legislative and executive powers.
“We need a government structure that can keep up, implement good policy and be accountable to the people far better than our county government can under the current system,” Brammer wrote.
Five Utah County state senators and 12 representatives signed on to Brammer’s op-ed, including Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork and Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.
The bill would also place limits on the ability of citizens to file petitions related to changing the form of government. According to the bill’s text, registered voters who circulate a petition “may not submit the complete petition less than 30 days before the day of the election.”
Last July, five Utah County residents, including Lee, filed a last-minute petition to let voters decide whether to change to a five-member commission that prevented the commission from voting whether to put the question of changing to a mayor-council form of government on the November 2019 ballot. In his op-ed, Brammer called the petition a “disappointing move.”
Commissioner Tanner Ainge said in an interview that the bill would help clarify the rules for submitting petitions, something that has been unclear in recent years.
“I think the state is trying to clean that up and clarify it,” Ainge said.
The bill could help “raise awareness of the change in government issue and it could perhaps convey a sense of inevitability that, if we don’t pass it this year, the state is going to impose a change in 2021,” said Ainge.
But, he added, the Legislature could have waited until after residents vote on the optional plan in November “before doing something like this to get a sense for where our county’s public opinion really is on the issue.”
Not everyone is in favor of switching away from the commission style of government. During a public hearing on Jan. 22 to discuss the potential change, Lee said having a full-time mayor and a part-time council would create an imbalance of authority.
“It seems like a consolidation of power to me into one individual and one office,” he said.
Deborah Herbert, of Mapleton, said creating a mayor position would take “power further and further away from the citizenry” and make the county “executive top-heavy.”
Commissioner Nathan Ivie disagreed and said separating duties by creating distinctive executive and legislative bodies would benefit Utah County residents. He added that he thought a mayor would be better for the county than a manager “because I believe that the people making the decisions should be elected officials and directly accountable.”
If the optional plan that Utah County residents vote on this November passes, a mayor and county council would be elected during the 2022 general election and take office at the beginning of 2023.
H.B. 257 was introduced into the House on Wednesday but has yet to be debated or have any action taken on it.