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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.

Committee Recommends New Form Of Government For Grand County

A decorative road sign reads “Welcome to Moab, Grand County, Utah.”
Kate Groetzinger
Moab is the Grand County seat and its largest city.

Grand County voters will be asked to approve a new form of government next year, or revert to a three-member commission. The option on the ballot will likely be a five-member council, with all members elected at-large, and a county manager, as suggested by a study committee last week. 

Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee said they are satisfied with the suggestion, which will go to voters in November 2020, pending approval from the county attorney.

The suggestion is the result of a nine-month-long process initiated by a change in state law earlier this year. Grand County’s government falls short of the requirements laid out in House Bill 224.

The county has non-partisan elections, term limits for council members, and recall elections, all of which are illegal under the new law. Additionally, the county’s current form of government is no longer valid. 

HB 224 allows either a county commission with both legislative and executive power, or a county council with an elected executive or an appointed manager. In the latter, the council retains all legislative power, while the executive or manager retains all executive power. The separation of powers in Grand County’s current form of government does not meet that bar.

According to Curtis Wells, a Republican who serves on the Grand County council, the current body performs some executive functions of the county government, while an administrator oversees other executive functions. 

“So essentially you have borderline-volunteer council members who also hold executive authority,” Wells said. “And, instead of a county manager, we have an administrator, who is basically a glorified assistant.” 

Wells said bringing the county into compliance with state law will improve the county’s efficiency. 

But Bob Greenberg, a Democrat on the study committee, says the entire process was motivated by politics rather than a desire to improve county management.

“It’s my belief that the legislature and local conservatives believe that the progressive tilt of Grand County’s government was the result of the current form of government,” he said. 

Despite his concerns with the new law, Greenberg said he does not believe the change in county government will result in a Republican-dominated council.

Whether politically motivated or not, the process was contentious from the start. A group of residents, including members of the county’s Republican Party, submitted a petition to create the study committee, preempting the county council’s efforts to do so. The council attempted to override the petition, and the group sued, resulting in a decision that gave both groups the power to nominate members of the committee. 

That resulted in a more balanced group than might have otherwise been created, according to Wells.

The county attorney now has until the end of January to sign off on the committee’s suggestion. If she does, voters will be asked to approve the option in November 2020, and elections for the new council will be held in 2022.

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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