The Utah County Commission held on Wednesday the first of four scheduled public hearings to discuss a potential change in the county form of government from a three-member commission to an executive-council form.
On Jan. 7, the commission passed a resolution to let residents vote in November whether to change the county’s form of government to a full-time mayor elected at-large and a part-time, five-member county council with council members who are elected in geographic districts.
The resolution passed after a year of debate over whether the three-member commission form of government should be changed in order to separate executive and legislative powers, as well as to keep up with population growth in the county.
Last year, the commission established the Utah County Good Governance Advisory Board to research the government form question. In May, it recommended that the county transition to a full-time mayor and seven member part-time council.
Commissioner Nathan Ivie said the resolution he put forward would give the county mayor executive authority, including the ability to veto decisions by the council, but that the council could override these vetoes.
“So there’s a check and balance built into this provisional plan,” Ivie said about the resolution residents will vote on in November’s election.
He added that he intentionally did not include a county manager position in the plan “because I believe that the people making the decisions should be elected officials and directly accountable.”
Commissioner Bill Lee, who led a citizen petition to consider expanding the commission from three to five members that failed to get enough votes to be put on a ballot, said he worried having a full-time mayor and an only part-time council would give the mayor too much authority in the county.
“It seems like a consolidation of power to me into one individual and one office,” Lee said.
Lee rejected the idea that there needs to be a separation of legislative and executive duties in the county.
“Separation of power usually lends towards a federal government, in which we’re talking about equal branches” in terms of duties, Lee said. “There’s nothing equal about these branches … there is no check and balance on an equal scale. The scales are weighted.”
The county shouldn’t “expand government” to accommodate population growth, Lee said, because doing so isn’t a sustainable practice.
“If we double in (population) size, are we going to say we need to double (the size of government) again?” said Lee.
The three commissioners each currently make $119,444 a year, not including benefits. County council members would receive an annual salary of $20,000 and no benefits, according to a cost analysis of the proposal, while the mayor and deputy mayor would get salaries of $120,000 and $80,000 with benefits, respectively. Spending on county government would be reduced by 34% under Ivie’s proposal.
Mapleton resident Deborah Herbert said it is not likely that part-time council members making $20,000 a year would be fully engaged in county politics or in touch with constituent concerns.
“You’re taking the power further and further away from the citizenry with this kind of a plan,” said Herbert, adding that moving to a mayor form of government would make the county “executive top-heavy.”
Commissioner Tanner Ainge said the part-time positions would attract working professionals, retirees and “people in our community (who) are willing to serve not (just) for the money.”
“This is a public service. It shouldn’t be a career path,” Ivie agreed.
Brian Chapman of Spanish Fork said he supported changing the form of government, adding that creating a five-member council would result in more diversity of thought and opinion.
“This is a desperately needed change,” Chapman said.
If the proposed change in government passes on Nov. 3, the mayor and council would be elected during the 2022 general election and take office in January 2023.
Additional public hearings to discuss the form of government will take place at 4 p.m. on Feb. 5, Feb. 12 and Feb. 19 in the Utah County Administration Building.