Gov. Gary Herbert recently signed House Bill 224 into law, throwing the future of Grand County’s form of government into question. The law mandates that the county come into compliance with state-sanctioned forms — of which Grand County’s nonpartisan, seven-person council is not one. Opponents call it the “forced change” provision. The county will have to choose a three- or five-person commission or a council with a stronger executive. There will be no more recall elections or term limits.
Amid rumors on social media that the Utah Association of Counties influenced the mandate to change forms of government, Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells has taken responsibility for writing the mandate clause.
“I made the decision to move us forward and put us on a path to compliance and a more effective form of government ... and I stand by it,” Wells said. "Our form of government is a failed experiment. It looks great on paper. It’s a disaster in action ... look [at] how we operate, how we fail to solve problems in a timely fashion or at all, how we fail to set a plan and follow through.”
Wells also told The Times-Independent that UAC had no hand in writing the new provisions.
Cindy Bulloch, the president of UAC, confirmed what Wells said.
“[Wells] was very involved. What happened with UAC is there were so many different opinions on which way that bill should go. As a general rule, unless UAC has real consensus, we don’t take a position. We tried to encourage our members to be involved and to try to look out for what they felt was going to be best for their constituents and their counties … Council Member Wells has been involved and has been really good to work with. I think he looks out for the constituents of Grand County and he has been involved. I don’t know any of your other council people as well just because they haven’t been as involved. Not that that’s good or bad. [Wells] has been involved and seems to be really doing a good job for his constituents.”
Grand County’s form of government, chosen by voters in 1992, has been out of compliance with state law since 2000.
Grand County Council Chair Mary McGann said Wells may have violated county policies. She cited section 5 of Grand County’s Policies and Procedures of the Governing Body, saying that council members shall not speak for the council or county without prior approval from the council.
“Council members are encouraged to delineate their personal opinions from the official positions of the council in the course of the discharge of their duties,” the policy says.
“Curtis Wells was aware of this policy [and] we’ve had a lengthy discussion on this particular section of our policy manual,” said McGann. “He was in the course of discharging his duties as a council member when he had the language placed in H.B. 224 that forces Grand County to change its form of government. He was appointed by the Grand County Council, at the Jan. 3, 2017 Grand County Council meeting, to be our representative for ALG, the Association of Local Governments. As a representative it is your duty to report to your fellow council members of issues that affect the county. Through that appointment he became a representative to [UAC]. Thus, by speaking as a council member to another elected body with the intention of having that elected body take an action that will directly affect Grand County, without prior approval from the council, is against our county’s policies and procedures. I am saddened, and disappointed; I thought he was above such unethical, blatant disregard for policies and procedures.”
“Grand County policy forbids a council member from speaking on behalf of the council without consent in a formal setting/capacity,” Wells responded. “This would be in a committee meeting, etc. I never spoke on behalf of the council in this regard. I spoke for myself and represented my opinions. You can’t silence an elected official as I have First Amendment rights, like [McGann] does.”
Kevin Walker, the head of the Grand County Democratic Party, also had strong words regarding Wells’ actions.
“Curtis Wells’ behind-the-scenes lobbying in Salt Lake City showed blatant disregard for the wishes of Grand County voters. No wonder he kept that lobbying secret until now. Our current non-partisan form of government has been approved by voters three times, but Curtis Wells thinks he knows better than the voters,” Walker said.
Wells defended his actions. “This idea is that somehow I have an obligation to ask for permission or to notify my political opponents and the people that don’t support me, that didn’t vote for me,” Wells said. “There’s a conveniently illogical standard that’s being applied to me and my work. What they should be doing is asking their progressive representatives why they are MIA. Why they’re not representing the positions and the interests of their constituents because if their excuse is that they’re relying on me, the former Republican Party chairman, that’s ridiculous.”
In the meantime, Diana Carroll, the county clerk/auditor, has verified the petition submitted by citizens affiliated with the Republican Party to initiate the change of government. She said that there were 386 valid signatures.
The next step is to put the question on the ballot. In November, voters will decide whether to form a study committee to consider a change in the county’s form of government.
Lynn Jackson, one of the citizens who filed the petition, said it’s a waiting game now. “The [Utah] Attorney General’s Office and the Lieutenant Governor have it under advisement, if you will. So I think we’re all just kind of waiting around to see what their analysis shows,” Jackson said. “Contrary to what some people would like to think, there are a lot of people who don’t like this form of government … there’s a group that is very vested in this particular form of government that we have and likes it … I don’t know what the percentage is but there is a significant number of people in the community who don’t like this form of government, including myself.”
The council unanimously passed a letter on April 17 asking the Utah Attorney General to analyze the constitutionality of H.B. 224, specifically regarding whether it was legal to mandate that a county change the form of government that voters have selected. It remains to be seen what the conclusion of that analysis will be.