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Salt Lake County residents have been slow to exercise their option to vote on changing the county's form of government. The Legislature may force them to make a decision this November.

Salt Lake County voters haven't gathered enough signatures to demand an election that could abolish the current commission and separate the executive and legislative branches of the county's governing body.The House of Representatives worked into the evening hours Friday and voted 45-24 to pass a bill by freshman Rep. Richard L. Walsh, R-Union, that would put that question to county voters this fall. The bill will be sent on to the Senate for consideration during the last three days of the session.

If adopted into law, HB364 would require Salt Lake County to ask voters if they want to keep the three-member commission, which per-forms both legislative and administrative functions. If voters say "no" in November, a committee - which would include the governor, House speaker and Senate president - would decide which alternate forms of government voters could then choose from during the 1998 primary election. After the new form of government is selected, voters would elect new officials in November 1998.

Some opponents of the bill said they had a problem with the Legislature telling a local government what to do. A similar argument, however, has been advanced in support of HB363, House Speaker Mel Brown's bill, which would do away with townships and, Brown says, give "the people back the right to make their own destinies."

Rep. Steve Barth, D-Salt Lake City and a Salt Lake County employee, argued the Legislature has no right to force something on people when they're perfectly capable of getting it themselves, if they want it.

"If people are really that dissatisfied, then for Pete's sake do something about it," Barth said after the vote.

They did. They just didn't sign petitions and submit them to the county clerk to force a vote, as Barth would suggest - they went to Walsh.

"A number of people have approached me. I've heard people talking about this for years," Walsh said.

The bill cleared the House despite opposition from Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Over-son, a Republican and president of the Utah Association of Counties.

In a memo to UAC members, Overson asked all county officials to oppose it because "once the Legislature starts forcing us to change our forms of government they will probably find other reasons to force all counties to change eventually." Because the bill only applies to counties with populations above 700,000, it only affects Salt Lake County.

Overson wrote in the memo that the "real reason" the Legislature wants to change the county's style of government is "to defeat certain elected officials who currently hold office."

Overson told a House committee Tuesday he supports a change in the county's form of government, he just has a problem with elements of HB364.

The County Commission already has the power to pass a resolution changing the county's form of government. Walsh said he told Over-son Friday he would withdraw his bill if the County Commission would do that. He said Overson could not promise that and told Walsh to "go ahead and run the bill."

"I would have thought we could have come to the bargaining table," Walsh said.

Overson could not be reached for comment Friday night.

Rep. John E. Swallow, R-Sandy, voted for the bill because he said people should have the right to vote on their form of government. They already have that right, he agreed, but said many voters either don't know they can force a vote on the issue or don't know how to go about it.

"When you have a substantial population, the separation of powers is an important consideration," Swallow said. "Now perhaps the commission will take steps on its own to alleviate the problem and this bill will not be necessary."

Of the Salt Lake County representatives who participated in the vote, 18 supported the bill and 12 voted against it.

House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake City, said he voted against the bill in part because the governor, House speaker and Senate president would be involved in narrowing the list of alternate forms of government residents could choose from. "What does that have to do with county government?" Jones said.

Walsh said he isn't sure how his bill will fare in the Senate, but was optimistic.