A majority of Utah County legislators say they plan to support legislation that would require Utah County to change its form of government to a form with separation of powers.
Utah Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, published an editorial in the Daily Herald on Monday stating his intent to change Utah law to require that any county with a population larger than 500,000 be required to immediately adopt a form of government that includes a complete separation of the legislative and executive functions. Seventeen of Brammer’s colleagues in the Utah Legislature signed on to the editorial, including Good Governance Advisory Board members Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo and Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs.
“Any form of government that does not include such a separation of powers will no longer be an option for such a county,” the editorial states.
The editorial comes in light of a surprise petition spearheaded by Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee, which stymied efforts to put the question of changing from a three-person commission to a mayor and seven-person council governing the county on this year’s ballot.
Lee and four other Utah County residents declared on July 9 their intent to gather signatures to put a question to the ballot of changing Utah County’s three-person commission to a part-time five-member commission. Filing that petition tied the hands of Lee’s fellow commissioners, Nathan Ivie and Tanner Ainge, who both supported implementing a recommendation made by the Utah County Good Governance Advisory Board to place the question of changing to a mayor-council form of government on the ballot this year.
The commission was scheduled to discuss details of its course of action at its meeting the same morning the petition was filed. Per Utah state law, the commission can’t put the question to the ballot while there is an active petition in process. The petitioners have 180 days to gather signatures, and if enough signatures are gathered to put it on the ballot, the commission would be unable to act at least until after the issue has been voted on in an election.
A different petition filed in January, with Ivie among the original signers, looked to change the government to a mayor-council form. The 180-day period for those petitioners to turn in the required signatures ended the day before Lee’s petition was filed.
The effort to gather signatures for the first petition had been dropped after the Utah County Commission unanimously formed the Utah County Good Governance Board to more closely study the concept of changing the form of government. The board recommended a change in Utah County government to a mayor-council form at a special meeting in June. The Utah County Commission can also put the question of a government change on the ballot, and was working out details of doing so when the new petition was filed.
Brammer said Monday that he’s already opened a bill file for such legislation. He will likely choose to bring the legislation forward in the 2020 legislative session even if the petitioners were to drop the petition, as he believes the change allows for greater checks and balances and better compliance with open meetings act laws and transparency laws.
“There are good policy reasons to separate the legislative and executive powers once a county is above a certain population,” Brammer said.
Brammer said he believes the chances of passing such legislation are “very good.”
Henderson, who both served on the Good Governance Advisory Board and signed her name to Brammer’s editorial, said she felt taken aback when the latest petition was filed and feels strongly that the part-time five-member commission proposed in the petition would perpetuate Utah County’s problems, not solve them.
“After going through all the different forms (of government) available, I really came to the conclusion that we’ve got to move in a different direction with a county of our size,” Henderson said.
Henderson said she feels strongly that the county needs to have a separation of powers as well as regional representation, while she doesn’t feel as strongly about other details like whether that means having a mayor or manager.
Lee said, despite the call in the editorial for the petition to be withdrawn, he plans to continue toward gathering signatures.
“We’ll push forward with getting those and making sure that the people in Utah County have that option on the table,” Lee said.
Lee said he’s following the procedure that the legislature put in place to change a form of county government, and he has the forms for signature gathering, as well as a plan written up.
“I can only function within the rules that they set up, and that’s what we did,” Lee said, adding that when the first group filed a petition to change the government in January, legislators did not rush to condemn it.
Lee also said he feels the petition does follow some of the recommendations of the GGAB. He originally preferred the three-person commission, Lee said, but opted for the expansion to five commissioners to allow for more voices and dialogue on the commission.
Lee said he believes the mayor-council form will have a higher annual cost and would also cost more money to administer the election this year. Lee said he felt that when the GGAB made its recommendation, it was rushed. He also takes issue with the idea that there are no separation of powers in the current government structure.
The county may not have a separation of powers by having different bodies perform legislative and executive functions, Lee said, but there is a separation of power structurally because of the seven other elected officials in the county government.
For instance, Lee said, he only has direct supervisory authority to hire or fire one county employee. He doesn’t have that kind of executive power over the sheriff’s department.
Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie said he agrees with Brammer’s editorial piece.
“In the end, to effectively govern a large county, the separation of powers is a critical component,” Ivie said via text message. “I am thankful the legislature recognizes the need for this principle to be incorporated into county governments that affect large and diverse populations.”
Ainge said he stands ready to move forward with the GGAB’s recommendations at the next opportunity.
“I am grateful for the work of the Good Governance Advisory Board,” Ainge said in a text message. “I committed to follow their recommendations, and worked diligently to do so before these new four citizens and Commissioner Lee decided to block us from voting. If and when that window to vote re-opens, whether through withdrawal, invalidation or action by the state legislature, I still stand ready to move forward with the GGAB recommendations.”