Utah County lawmakers say they will likely revisit a 2012 law that allowed the Utah County Commission to move budget staff from under the Utah County Clerk Auditor’s Office to under the commission.

Commissioners Bill Lee and Tom Sakievich voted on Wednesday to approve the controversial staffing change despite opposition from fellow Utah County officials, including Budget Manager Rudy Livingston, who called the move an “erosion of the separation of powers.”

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, a former state senator from Spanish Fork, criticized the change as “insane” and “completely out of alignment with principles of good government.”

In a written statement following Wednesday’s meeting, the commissioners wrote that by “state law, the Commission has full authority over setting the county budget, amending the county budget, designating who the budget officer is, and determining the staffing plans for all county offices.”

“Today’s action supports the Commission’s role to effectively serve the public interest at minimal cost to our taxpayers,” said Lee. “We intend to keep county government limited, restrained, and balanced.”

Sakievich referred to the change as “a victory for taxpayers” and said “streamlining the budget process will help us receive all the information needed as we work towards lowering the property tax rate in the coming weeks.”

The staff change was possible, legally, because of a 2012 bill passed by the Utah State Legislature that “change(d) the law so that the (county) commission or the council, the legislative body, would appoint the budget officer, not the clerk/auditor,” according to Republican Provo Sen. Curt Bramble, who sponsored the bill.

On Thursday, Bramble told the Daily Herald the he did so because then-Salt Lake County Auditor Greg Hawkins “was using the budget and the appointment of the budget officer as a way to direct county affairs well beyond (his duties), in other words, he was setting the agenda through the budgetary process, even though he was not the legislative body.”

“It was meant to address an abuse of the process that existed at the time,” the Provo senator said.

When asked whether he believed the Utah County Commission’s action was in line with the intent of the law, Bramble said “it is not,” adding “I agree completely with Lt. Gov. Henderson and others who have weighed in on this.”

Bramble said “the Legislature likely will be revisiting” the law and noted that he is meeting on Friday with the members of the Utah Association of Counties, Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office and other officials “to have a discussion about it, because what’s happened in Utah County was never anticipated in the statute.”

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said in an interview he “absolutely” believes lawmakers need “to revisit that law and make sure that it was applied appropriately in this case.”

“We need to do an in-depth review and see if it needs to be fixed,” he said, adding that he is “extremely concerned and I think it’s extremely problematic to eliminate checks and balances, especially as it relates to nearly half-a-billion-dollar budget.”

Republican Highland Rep. Brady Brammer, an attorney, told the Herald he believed the commission’s interpretation of the law “can be challenged,” noting that Utah Code lists the county budget officer “under the powers and duties of the auditor, but they are allowed to be chosen by the county commission.”

“And what that indicates is that there is at least a colorful argument that while the county commission may choose them (the budget officer) — that’s pretty explicit by statute — the clerk/auditor retains the supervision, because that position is listed under the clerk/auditor’s powers and duties.”

Brammer added, “I don’t think that it’s out of the realm of possibilities that the Legislature would address this situation and would do so as soon as we can.”

“I do think it’s problematic,” he said. “It sounds like the commission was not liking the answers they were getting to budgetary questions, and so they’re changing who the people giving those answers report to, to make them report to the commissioners. And that seems like it’s one less separation of powers for already consolidated powers within the county commission.”

Former Commissioner Tanner Ainge, who resigned earlier this month, weighed in on the action of his former colleagues, writing on Twitter that “treating the budget staff like this is a new low for a commission that continues to be light on competency & heavy on misleading political stunts / empty rhetoric.”

“Good governance, reason, trust in the workplace and long-term fiscal health are in constant jeopardy with these two,” the former commissioner wrote.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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