The Grand County Council voted 4-3 on Aug. 19 to postpone consideration of a proposed resolution and agreement that would allow it to team up with Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, San Juan and Uintah counties.
Council members Ken Ballantyne, Pat Holyoak and Rory Paxman supported vice chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs’s motion to hold off on the item, while Gene Ciarus, Jim Nyland and council chairman Lynn Jackson opposed the delay.
The council’s vote marked the second time this month that it refrained from taking any action on the proposal, and Tubbs suggested that she needs more time to gather information about the agreement.
“I probably know a bit more than the folks out there, but I don’t feel that I know enough to [cast] an intelligent vote,” she said.
Although Jackson ultimately voted against Tubbs’ motion, he said he’s willing to go over the proposal in greater detail with the public.
“If we need to have more conversation with this, that’s OK,” he said.
The council plans to hold a public meeting on the proposal at some point in the next month. Jackson said he and other council members will do their best at that time to explain why they believe that Grand County could benefit from the coalition.
“We’ll take some time and we’ll try to help people understand this,” he said. “To me, it’s a good thing and could be used to our advantage.”
But Jackson said he can understand why others don’t share his views.
Many of those people filled the council’s chambers on Aug. 19, urging the council to delay its consideration of the matter until the board addresses their concerns.
Mary Mullen McGann, who is running for a seat on the council, said she believes the current agreement is too vague and open to wildly different interpretations.
“A vague and unclear contract is a risky contract to enter into, because the likelihoods of that contract being legally challenged are greatly increased and the parties involved are more likely to spend a great deal of time and money on litigation,” McGann said.
Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley told the council that he’s grappled with similarly difficult issues over the past few years, and he said his experiences taught him that government entities shouldn’t rush into something so controversial.
“Every time I’ve tried to push them faster, it’s failed me as a process,” he said.
In this case, Erley said he’s concerned that the additional layer of government would dilute the county’s voice amongst various state and federal agencies. At times, he said, the coalition may also contradict the county’s voice on some issues.
Canyonlands Watershed Council Executive Director Chris Baird, a former councilman who is running for a seat on the council this fall, questioned how the coalition would come up with funding to run its operations.
In essence, he said, the coalition will be competing with other local government entities for Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) funding.
“I think that if you create a new political subdivision, you have to realize that that’s another mouth to feed, but the [funding] pie doesn’t get any bigger,” Baird said.
While many others in the crowd shared his views, two people spoke up in support of the idea.
One of those men — Steve Lowry — said the county stands to benefit from a stronger voice that represents the region as a whole.
Other coalition members may, for instance, rally behind local efforts to fund an expanded Utah State University-Moab campus, Lowry said.
“I do support this for the fact that I sure would rather be a member of the Knights of the Round Table than being the peasant on the outside waiting to see where the ax falls,” he said.
County attorney explains legal review
Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald had previously raised some concerns about the proposal but ultimately determined that it is authorized under state code, as well as the county’s governing charter, he told the council this week.
In fact, he said, the charter encourages partnerships with other government entities as a way to maximize efficient operations.
Fitzgerald acknowledged that if the council votes to join the coalition, it would be signing some of its decision-making powers over to the new government entity.
But — as Jackson noted two weeks ago — Fitzgerald said those powers are already limited on lands that are under the jurisdiction of state or federal government agencies. As it is, he said, the county doesn’t have much say to regulate projects on those lands, beyond its land use plan and its zoning restrictions.
Ultimately, Fitzgerald said he believes that members of the public are concerned about the proposal partly because the coalition’s goals are “somewhat” open-ended.
“It makes people a little more nervous,” he said. “It’s hard to predict [what its plans are].”
Citizens might have an easier time accepting the proposal if they had more specific information about the kinds of infrastructure projects that the coalition hopes to develop, Fitzgerald said.
“I think it would also be very helpful for the council to talk to the citizens about what’s going on out there and what’s coming down the pike in some of these other counties, and how can we best affect those decisions as Grand County, rather than those decisions in essence being placed upon us without our input,” he said.
According to Jackson, coalition members haven’t come up with a big wish list of projects to date.
To begin with, Jackson said the coalition plans to apply for a state grant to conduct an inventory of infrastructural assets across eastern Utah.
“The idea behind this inventory is to identify connections that could be made to benefit the region,” he said.
In terms of more specific issues, Jackson said that coalition members are looking at projects that would address transportation bottlenecks in the Uintah Basin.
“One of the issues probably driving [this] is getting [oil and gas] production out of the Uintah Basin,” he said.
Coalition members have discussed the possibility of building a railroad line that would run from Price to the Uintah Basin, via Indian Canyon.
“It doesn’t involve Grand County,” Jackson said.
Likewise, there have been discussions about building a new pipeline that would run from Myton in Duchesne County to Wellington in Carbon County, according to Jackson.
“Beyond that, I am not aware of any big projects that have been discussed,” he said. “People are just sort of throwing out ideas.”