Thursday, October 15, 2020

Why I Support Utah County Proposition 9

County Revenue from Taxes & Fees Per Capita

If passed, Proposition 9 will change the form of government in Utah County from a three-member commission to five council members and a mayor. Each council member will represent one of five districts in the county while the mayor will be elected by the entire county.

Over the last year and a half, I have participated in many discussions on the pros and cons of switching from a three-member commission to an executive-council form of government. I have friends and associates on both sides of the issue whom I greatly respect. As I have researched the issue independently my support for Proposition 9 has grown.

Key issues that a mayor-council form of government addresses

  1. Friction between commissioners.
    With a three member commission whenever two commissioners meet there is the potential to violate Utah’s  Open Meeting Act. The current system puts a damper on the ability for commissioners to create personal relationships that are critical to having productive discussions on legislative issues. When personal relationships exist it is easier to listen to opposing points of view and consider their merits rather than simply dismiss them. Better decisions are made when a variety of opinions are expressed and evaluated. The lack of good relationships between all commissioners inhibits productive discussions.
  2. Commissioners share both legislative and executive responsibilities.
    The two branches serve as a check on each other. If the mayor uses power in a way the council disagrees they can limit it via legislative action. Veto power gives the mayor the ability to stop or slow down “bad” legislation. 75% of the council can override any veto. Splitting the legislative and executive functions implements a key constitutional principle and results in better not bigger government. When executive authority is shared by three people it is difficult to know who to talk with to move the ball forward or who to hold accountable when there are execution issues.
  3. Limited Representation
    There are currently about 265,000 registered voters in the county, 24 cities and towns, and 625,000 residents. Yes, we currently vote for all three, but I believe the odds of influencing a single council member who is beholden to 53,000 voters, 3 to 10 cities and/or towns, and 125,000 residents is much, much greater than the current system. The proposed system guarantees that each area of the county is represented and implements another key constitutional principle.

Much of the critique of Prop 9 involves comparisons to Salt Lake County. Utah County is structurally different than Salt Lake County. Much of the cost of government for Salt Lake County comes from the higher level of service it provides to residents: a county-wide library system, numerous parks, arts and recreational programs, golf courses, etc. Most of the positions reporting to the mayor exist because of a county need (finance, IT, HR, etc.) not because of the form of government. Cache County is structurally similar to Utah County and our taxes and fees per capita are very close to each other. Some years we have a bit lower cost, other years ours is slightly higher. They have had the executive-form for 35 years. They have seven council members elected by district and an elected county executive. The council have no staff and the executive’s staff consists of a deputy executive and an administrative assistant.

In sum the new form of government will not inhibit the creation of relationships between elected officials, is more aligned with constitutional principles, in my view will not raise costs, and will be a form that is more responsive to citizen input because of the increased representation and checks and balances – it is better not bigger government.

List of Common Critiques of Prop 9

  • It will increase our taxes.
    I’ve gone through a comparison of taxes and fees for all counties and looked at their form of government and found no correlation between the form of government and taxes. According to Howard Stephenson, president of the Utah Taxpayers Association and former state senator, the most significant reason Utah County and Cache county have relatively low taxes and fees is a decision made 40+ years ago to not develop subdivisions outside of cities.

    Our current form of government costs about $800K. The new form could cost the county $520K to $800k per year depending on how support staff is handled. For the most recent cost data refer to Select Name: Utah County, Year: 2019, Type: Expense. Then select Commission under org, click CAT1 in the box below and look at the Personnel Costs
    Utah County Commission Personnel Costs for 2019The charts below compares per capita taxes and fees between individual counties and the county forms of government. The second chart shows that counties using the commission form collect about 80% more taxes and fees from residents as those using the executive council form. That said, it is obvious to me our taxes and fees won’t drop if Prop 9 passes. It makes equal sense to assume that our taxes will not rise if Prop 9 passes. While I recognize that change can create fear, the fear that our taxes will rise or the hope that they will go down are both unsupported.

  • A mayor will have too much power.
    The mayor has no vote and is responsible (aka accountable) for how the county executes the policies established by the council. The mayor does have the power to veto actions of the council and for budgets has can veto line items. A veto can be overridden by 4 council members. This provides a needed check on “poor” council decisions. Absent a mayor once 3 of 5 council members make a decision it is final (absent a referral process which can be expensive and time consuming). The council can put limits on the mayor because it controls the purse and can also limit the mayors authority via legislation (see Utah State Code 17.53.316.3). No new powers are given to the county with the change of form. Separating executive and legislative powers increases accountability (we know who is responsible for what) and allows these two separate branches to check each other which in my view puts new limits on the county’s power.

  • In the new form I will only be able to for 1 council member rather  than 3 commissioners.
    This is true. However, representation by districts is a constitutional principle that we understand in other contexts. School boards, state senators and representatives, US congressional seats, city council members in larger cities, as well as precinct officers and delegates. Having five council members elected via districts and a mayor voted on by the county gives the county six elected officers instead of three commissioners. Also, when you speak with an individual commissioner today you represent 1/5th of the number of constituents that you will when you interact with a council member in the future. Whom are you more likely to be able to influence?

  • The new form is bigger government
    The new form does add three additional elected officials and creates a new branch, but it does not create a government with more power. The additional checks and balances created by separating executive and legislative powers actually limits power. Also, the new form will cost ~30% less than the old form. So in a real sense the new form could be viewed as smaller government. I view it as better government.

  • Video Critique: A Conversation with Former Commissioners about Utah County’s Prop 9 – No to Prop 9
    In this 12 minutes video I found numerous incorrect statements or inferences which for me put a big question mark on the conclusions drawn. I will note that a couple of good points were raised, including that it would have been best to have a thorough financial analysis performed. I did my own analysis and believe in the worst case the cost will be similar to the cost of the current form and best case about $280K less. The  most likely is it will be modestly less. Here are 10 of the inaccuracies I found:
    1. There are three counties with the executive-council form of government. False. There are two. Grand County was mentioned as one, it does not. Salt Lake County and Cache County have the executive form. Note, Grand County has a council-manager form along with Summit and Wasatch counties.
    2. Those on the video did not know where the executive-council recommendation came from. If true, this reflects poorly on the amount of research they did to prepare for the video. A relatively quick internet search shows that there was a petition filed in 2019 for a 7 member council plus mayor. This petition was withdrawn to allow the county to use the  recommendations of a board established by the commission to be used to define the new form. A second petition was started before the commissioners could vote to put the recommendation on the ballot. This petition failed to get a third of the required signatures. Following the  failed petition the commission voted 2 to 1 to put a 5 member council plus mayor on the ballot. The names of the petitioners for both petitions, the members of the advisory boards, and the names of the commissioners who made the decision in January of this year can readily be found.
    3. Most cities in the county operate like the commission today. False. Most cities use the weak mayor-council form where the mayor chairs meetings, does not vote but is the chief executive officer of the city. Orem is an exception, where the mayor is the symbolic head but votes along with the 6 council members.
    4. The Good Governance Advisory Report was produced by a bunch of interns. False. The committee was composed of the following individuals: Board included Cameron Martin (chair), Rex Facer (vice chair), Heidi Balderree, Clint Betts, Curt Bramble, Clark Caras, Craig Conover, Deidre Henderson, Kirk Hunsaker, Michelle Kaufusi, Quinn
      Mecham, Mike Mendenhall, Jefferson Moss, Ifo Pili, and Rob Smith. These individuals are successful members of the county and many hold PhDs and Masters degrees, some serve as elected officials, others have “real jobs”, or serve in public entities. Yes the board used BYU graduate students, and UVU students to do research which provided a lot of value to the committee report. However, the report was drafted by the board chair and reviewed by all committee members prior to publication.
    5. Legislation was passed by the state  to revise the process of changing the county form of government specifically for Utah County after a citizen petition to change the form of government failed. False. The process to change was revised in 2018 to the then current form to fix issues like potentially requiring citizens to file a petition twice to get the change of government on the ballot. Residents in Tooele County were the ones having issues at the time. Click here to listen to the audio in a Senate Committee hearing on the related bill HB 224. BTW, Tooele County did vote to change to a council-manager form and will be moving to that Jan 2021. Note, I could not find any information on a petition for a change of county government in Utah County between Jan 1, 2010 to Jan 1, 2019.
    6. The commission’s legislative powers only affects those living in the county as opposed the the city. False. When it comes to land use issues this is an accurate statement but the commission can enact legislation that affects all county residents such as tax increases or fees.
    7. The support staff for the Salt Lake City form of government grew from $1.4M to over $14M since they changed from a commission to a county form. False. Many existing functions were moved under the mayor following the change as one would expect. These positions were not created to support the new form. If you remove them from the $14M I think you will find that while the support cost for the mayor-council form rose in Salt Lake county it did not increase by a factor of 10 as indicated.
    8. Prop 9 expands the power of the county. False. The county has no more power or authority over residents as a result of Prop 9 passing. There are shifts in who has power. Unlike the commission the council will not responsible for execution in public works (roads and parks), IT, or HR departments. The mayor’s office will be the responsible party. Council members will each represent a distinct district. Council actions may be vetoed by the mayor but they can override the veto. The council will approve or deny board/committee recommendations made by the mayor whereas before it was simply a commission action. The mayor has the authority to issue executive orders but according to state code 17-53-316 these may not:
      (a) be inconsistent with county ordinances addressing or with policies established by the county legislative body addressing the same subject as the executive order; or
      (b) expand or narrow legislative action taken or legislative policy issued by the county legislative body.
      This makes the council the ultimate authority over the mayors powers in this regard.
    9. Veto power does not represent a separation of power and gives the executive branch the power to legislate. False. A mayor cannot vote on legislation and therefore cannot legislate. The mayor can influence decisions and the veto power does increase that influence. However, it can be overridden by the council and is therefore a tool that provides a constitutional “check” against bad legislation. The  veto power can also be used as a tool as budgets are developed with different departments encourage looking at multiple options.
    10. There were multiple statements county costs and taxes would go up if Prop 9 was passed. Possibly. The reasons cited were policy related; things which the current elected commissioners could do today and future commission members could do tomorrow. Why would a council be any different tomorrow? I find it ironic that a reason to oppose Prop 9 is because a council will increase taxes just like the commission did last year.

There are pros and cons to most issues. I hope people will investigate the arguments and make a decision based on accurate information not fear based emotion or simply because they like or don’t like someone that supports Prop 9. After I’ve investigated the issue my conclusion is that the new form of government is more aligned with constitutional principles than our current form and will be a form that is more responsive to citizen input because of the increased representation and checks and balances – it is better not bigger government.

Brief History of Prop 9

  • Jan 2019: Petition filed by local leaders (State Rep Mike McKell, Mayor Richard Brunst, Mayor Jenney Rees, County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, and County Treasurer Kim Jackson) to change the form of county government from 3 commissioner to mayor-council. Plan Overview and Details, Change Process Diagram, Form of Government Options.
  • Feb 2019: County Commissions Authorized formation of Good Governance Advisory Board. 15 member board “to facilitate research, analysis, public outreach, and provide recommendations to the Utah County Board of Commissioners related to a potential modification of Utah County’s form of government.”
  • Jun 2019: Mayor-council petition group did not submit signatures.
  • Jun 2019: Good Governance Advisory Board shared recommendations with county. 7 member council. 2 seats at large, 5 in districts plus a mayor to be put to the voters in 2019. One of the biggest items of discussion was whether to have it be put before the voters in 2019 or 2020.
  • Jul 2019: 2nd petition filed for change of government with 5 member commission.3 in districts, 2 at large. this action preempted any other action on a change of government for 6 months while the signature process was undertaken.
  • Jan 2020: 2nd petition did not have sufficient signatures. 2,939 signed 10,100 needed
  • Jan 2020: Commission votes to put 5 member council plus mayor on the ballot


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