A controversial petition calling for an election to change Utah County’s form of government failed to gather the required number of signatures to pass, according to an unofficial count by the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office.
For a year now, county officials and residents have debated whether to change the county’s form of government from a three-person commission to either a five-person commission or a mayor-city council form.
A citizen petition filed last July called for an election this November to see whether voters would support expanding the Utah County Commission from three full-time commissioners to five part-time commissioners: two elected at-large and three elected in geographic districts.
One of the petition’s five sponsors was Commissioner Bill Lee, who said on Monday that he disliked the mayor-council form of government that counties like Salt Lake have.
“It’s a consolidation of power into one person, which is the mayor,” Lee said. “The mayor has a lot of power. And, to me, that’s problematic.”
But for others, including Commissioner Nathan Ivie, consolidation of power is precisely why the commission form of government needs amending.
“I can attest to the fact that it’s not a personal problem with elected officials,” Ivie said last year. “It’s a structural problem with the form of government we have because we do not have checks and balances in place. We do not have separation of powers.”
Around 4:45 p.m. on Monday, Lee and others brought stacks of signed petitions into the elections division of the clerk/auditor’s office, just 15 minutes before the submission deadline.
A preliminary counting of signatures, which was done by weighing the stacks of paper on a scale, found that 2,939 residents had signed, significantly less than the more than 10,000 signatures needed for the measure to be placed on a ballot in November.
Prior to the counting, Lee said he was aware that they hadn’t gathered enough signatures.
“We want to turn them in (anyway),” Lee said, to show that “there is a great interest in this” and that “people are really hesitant and don’t want to expand government” to a mayor-council form.
Heidi Balderree, a Saratoga Springs resident who sponsored the petition, said she did so “to keep our government limited and fiscally responsible.”
“This seemed like a good compromise to us,” Balderee said, referring to either keeping the form of government the same or expanding to a mayor-city council form. “With the growing needs of our county, this seem(ed) like it wasn’t a step too far.”
Balderree said she and others gathered signatures through meetings, PowerPoint presentations, email campaigns and word of mouth.
Utah County elections director Rozan Mitchell said an official count of the signatures would be done on Tuesday.
Lee was criticized last year for the way and timing of which the petition was filed. It was submitted just an hour before the commission was scheduled to discuss whether a measure to change to a mayor-council form of government should be placed on the ballot in November 2019.
Filing the petition made it so the commission couldn’t move forward with that discussion.
“The timing of this does not feel like (this is) a genuine petition,” Commissioner Tanner Ainge said last July. “I have real questions about whether this is a good faith petition.”
Expanding to a five-member commission goes against the recommendation of an advisory board the commission itself established.
The Good Government Advisory Board, which was formed to conduct research and make recommendations for which form of government would best suit the county, recommended a change to a full-time mayor with seven part-time council members.
When asked about the advisory board’s recommendation, Lee said the board didn’t take into account costs and certain legal matters that he felt needed to be considered.
“They gave us a recommendation, in my opinion, without going through all of the processes that we asked them to accomplish,” said Lee.
What about concerns over a lack of separation of powers in the commission form of government? Lee said they are overblown and that having multiple executives (commissioners) in office is a better balance of power than having just one (a mayor).
“(There’s) a lot of separation in county government,” Lee said, pointing out that the positions like county attorney and chief of police are elected positions as opposed to appointed.
The commission will address potential changes to the county’s form of government in its Tuesday meeting, according to Ainge.