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As Utah County grows, commissioners agree government body needs expansion

By Carlene Coombs - | Jun 10, 2024

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald file photo

Utah County Commissioners, from left, Tom Sakievich, Amelia Powers Gardner and Brandon Gordon listen during a commission meeting in Provo on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.

Last year, Utah County accounted for 39% of Utah’s population growth, adding about 22,000 new residents, according to the Kem C. Gardner Institute. By 2030, the county is estimated to have more than 860,000 residents, compared to about 659,000 in 2020.

The Utah County Commission is currently comprised of three commissioners, each elected to represent county citizens at large.

County Commission Chair Brandon Gordon said he thinks having a larger commission would allow the government body to be more “efficient” and more present in the community they represent.

“Some days I just, I want to be at everything. I want to be at every ribbon-cutting and event and supporting cities, but that there’s so much day to day duties, like just approving checks and things like that,” he said.

Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner said a larger commission would allow commissioners to spread the workload, focus on supervising two or three departments rather than six or so, and allow them more time in the community.

“You want your commissioners to be leaders in your community, and we spend so much of our time doing operational stuff that we really don’t have time to do much else,” she said.

In an email to the Daily Herald, Commissioner Tom Sakievich said the commission needs a better approach due to the county’s growth.

“I have always felt that we need change, a five-member commission,” he said. “This commission would continue to be at-large. We need better representation throughout the county with the increase in population and businesses.” Having five commissioners, he believes, also would improve how decisions are made and allow more input.

To account for more responsibility as the county grows, the commission hired a full-time county administrator to assist with administrative duties. Each commissioner also has a senior policy advisor who aids them.

Both Gorden and Powers Gardner noted that having additional commissioners would be helpful when one commissioner needs to be away due to health issues or emergencies.

Last month, the Utah County Commission canceled two county commission meetings in a row due to the lack of a quorum, meaning only one commissioner was available.

On May 15, the meeting was canceled because Powers Gardner was attending to other county business and Sakiveich was receiving chemotherapy treatments. Sakievich announced in January that he would be retiring from the commission at the end of his term this year due to his health.

The following week, the May 22 meeting was canceled as Powers Gardner was the only one in attendance. Gordon was at a meeting with the Utah Transit Authority and Sakievich again was unable to attend, Powers Gardner said in the meeting.

“Things happen, right. Sometimes, people get sick, they have family emergencies or sometimes people elect bad elected officials,” she said. “And if you get one (commissioner) down, the others have to have 100% attendance record, and that’s just not feasible.”

In 2020, Utah County residents voted against changing the form of government from a county commission to a mayor-council system with five county council members and a mayor. That change was voted down by about 61% of residents voting against it.

Of Utah’s 29 counties, seven counties — Salt Lake, Wasatch, Summit, Cache, Morgan, Tooele and Grand — have larger legislative bodies, such as five-member commissions or seven-member county councils.

Changing the form of government can be done in two ways, Powers Gardner said, either through the state Legislature or through a ballot initiative like in 2020.

Ballot initiatives on the issue can only be done every five years, she added, and require either citizens gathering signatures to put the question to a vote or the commission can vote to send it to the ballot.

Gordon and Sakievich both agreed on the idea of a part-time five-member commission, while Powers Gardner said she “isn’t picky” on how to expand the commission.

Sakievich didn’t favor a mayor-council form of government, saying in an email that with a mayor and council, “the mayor always has the last word.”

Gordon said a part-time commission appeals to him because it would allow a broader range of candidates who might want to run for a seat on the commission.

“A mom might say, right now, like, ‘I would love to be a commissioner, but I got kids at home,’ and such. And moms that are able to be mayors and city council members realize that, hey, we can do some of the meetings at night, and it’s more a part-time position,” he said.

During the 2020 effort to change the form of government, some concerns from citizens who voted it down included that it was creating more government or the change could increase taxes.

Gordon said if they were to move to have five part-time commissioners, salaries could be adjusted to account for lighter workloads and fewer working hours.

“That gives us the opportunity then to, I feel like, ratchet back the existing salaries, and then that way you could help absorb those two new positions,” he said.

Powers Gardner said an expansion would allow for better services to county employees to improve processes and better serve citizens.

“It’s the idea that it wouldn’t be growing government beyond the scope of government; it would be growing it (the government) to fit the size of the population,” she said.

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