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Weber County leaders want to study changing form of government

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A group of Weber County leaders held a news conference Thursday to launch a petition for a 2018 ballot measure to form a committee to study changing Weber County's form of government.

A group of Weber County leaders held a news conference Thursday to launch a petition for a 2018 ballot measure to form a committee to study changing Weber County’s form of government.

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OGDEN — Has Weber County grown too big for its three-member commission form of government?

A handful of Weber County leaders think maybe so — and that the question is, at the very least, worth asking.

So that bipartisan group of elected officials — including Rep. Greg Froerer, R-Huntsville, Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson and North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor — on Thursday became the first 13 signees on a petition for a vote next year on whether the county should form a study committee to look at an alternative form of government.

"As an Ogden resident, business owner, a Latino and a Democrat, I believe there is a need for a new form of government in Weber County — one that allows some of those growing demographics to have representation at the county level," said Oscar Mata, co-chairman of the petitioner group Weber County Forward. "It's my opinion that our current form of government makes that representation very difficult."

Weber County's three full-time commissioners represent about 250,000 residents.

By comparison, Utah counties that still have three-member commissions include Davis County, representing about 340,000 residents, and Utah County, representing more than 575,000. But Cache County, representing about 120,000, has a seven-member council and a county executive.

If Weber County Forward's petition gains at least 8,601 signatures from registered voters by mid-April, the question of whether the county should study a different form of government will be printed on the 2018 primary ballot.

Taylor, co-chairman of the petitioner group, believes that's enough time to gather support — but if not, petitioners can also shoot for the November general election ballot.

"I think most citizens understand the concepts of separation of powers and increased representation — those things resound with Americans," he said. "So I think there's going to be broad support across party lines."

Taylor believes it's time for Weber County to have a more "representative" form of government.

"Three commissioners for 250,000 people, the best possible commissioners — and we've had good ones — can't represent that many people adequately," he said.

If voters give the thumbs up, a study committee would research what options might be best for Weber County: either keep a three-member commission or expand to either a commission with five or seven members or a county council form with either with an elected mayor or an appointed county executive.

The study committee would then make a recommendation, which would be put on the ballot again to ask voters whether they would want to accept or reject the change.

If voters approve the study and its recommendation, it would take as long as three years for Weber County to see a change in government.

Gibson was the only county commissioner who attended Thursday's press conference and signed the petition. He said he's supportive of at least researching the issue, but isn't sure yet whether a change is needed.

"I think the county commission form has served us well over the years," he said, but he added it's important to "always be looking for opportunities to improve."

"I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater — I don't want to get ahead of the people — but what I think is the most important thing here is to have a good thorough public discussion," Gibson said.

There may, however, be a downside to an expanded government.

Gibson said it's "likely" that a commission or council with more members, though part time, would cost the county more because of a need for more staff.

Currently, Weber County's full-time commissioners earn six-figure salaries. Gibson last year took in about $170,000 in salary and benefits. Commissioner James Ebert took in about $157,000 in salary and benefits, and former Commissioner Matthew Bell (who didn't run for re-election and held the seat for several years), took in about $209,000 in salary and benefits, according to Utah's transparency website.

"The reality is we are growing (and) we ought to look at how to handle that additional growth, and sometimes it costs more money to handle additional growth," Gibson said. "What we need to be about, in the end, is efficiency and doing things right, and cost is only part of that equation. It's an important part, but it's only part of that."

Commissioner Jim Harvey in a phone interview later Thursday said he hadn't decided whether to sign the petition because he would "want to meet with the petitioners first before signing anything," but he added "I welcome an open dialogue."

"My desire is to make sure that the process is conducted so that the costs for such research and fact-finding have minimal financial impact to the taxpayers of Weber County," Harvey said.

Commissioner James Ebert did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.