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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Grand County Wins Lawsuit, Giving Voters The Option To Keep Current Form Of Government

A photo of Moab Rim  from Sand Flats Road.
Ken Lund
Creative Commons
Moab is home to around a third of Grand County’s 15,500 residents, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A two-year-long process to change Grand County’s form of government may be coming to an end. The county won a lawsuit Thursday that will give voters multiple choices on Election Day — including keeping its current form of government.

The Utah State Legislature passed a bill in 2018 that outlawed certain types of county government, including Grand County’s, which was a seven-member council at the time. The county’s races were also non-partisan and the winners could be recalled, both of which violated the new state law.

In response, the county set up a study committee to recommend a new form of government, which is the process outlined by law for changing a form of county government. That committee, in December, recommended the county adopt a 5-person council, which is set to go to voters for approval in November.

But the county council realized this summer that it could just tweak its current form of government to bring it into compliance with state law. In August, it moved to formally become a seven-person commission, drop the possibility of election recalls and hold partisan elections.

At the same meeting, the commission also voted to add two questions to the ballot, giving voters the option to adopt a five-person commission, rather than a seven-person body, or to switch to all at-large seats, rather than a mix of districts and at-large seats.

Members of the study committee sued the county over these amendments, and a ruling handed down Thursday found the county is legally allowed to amend its form of government, as well as add amendments to the ballot.

County Commissioner Mary McGann said that’s good because it gives voters more options.

“I’m thrilled that we have this,” McGann said. “If the study committee plan doesn’t pass, and the other two propositions fail, our county government stays as it is.”

Had the county council not brought itself into compliance with state law, and the study committee’s proposal failed in November, the county government would have automatically reverted to a three-person commission.

Neither the members of the study committee who brought the lawsuit, nor the members of the Grand County commission want that.

But Stephen Stocks, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said that could still happen. Stocks was a member of the study committee and is running for the Grand County commission, and he said the judge’s ruling does not settle the matter of whether the county council’s decision to formally become a commission in August was legal.

“If the county’s action is illegal, and they can’t change to a commission, that puts things back in [an] extremely precarious situation,” Stocks said.

Christina Sloan, the Grand County attorney, disagreed. She said the ruling finds the county commission legally amended the county’s form of government in August and that the propositions it put on the ballot are legal, too.

The ruling is somewhat narrow, according to Sloan, in that it only references one section of the state law that outlines the permissible forms of county government and the change of government process in Utah, leaving the door open to a possible lawsuit. But Sloan said she’s confident the county would win that case, too.

“I'm 100% confident that the three-person [commission] default is dead, due to the findings in the ruling,” she said. “And I'll take it to the Utah Supreme Court if necessary to win it.”

Stocks filed a motion with the court Thursday afternoon requesting a clarification from the judge. If that doesn’t work, he said they are likely to appeal the decision.

Updated: October 2, 2020 at 6:08 PM MDT
This story has been updated to clarify Sloan’s position on the judge’s ruling.
Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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