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Utah County voters: Should county move to mayor, council form of government?

Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge officially backs Proposition 9, pledges not to run for mayor

SHARE Utah County voters: Should county move to mayor, council form of government?

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVO — After years of debate over whether they should even be posed the question, Utah County voters on Election Day will have the chance to weigh in on an important issue — one that could have big implications for their county’s future.

The question printed on Utah County ballots — which are already hitting mailboxes this week — is Proposition 9: whether the current form of government, the three-member Utah County Commission, should change to a new form: a mayor and a five-member Utah County Council.

The “yes” or “no” ballot question could change the trajectory of Utah County’s future. To its supporters, it could create a more representative government that’s closer to the people, open elected office opportunities to more people who want to serve in part-time capacities and save the county money. Its opponents, however, argue it would expand government bureaucracy, put Utah’s more conservative county on a path too similar to the more liberal Salt Lake County and in the long term cost the county more money.

Ahead of the Nov. 3 election, Utah County Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge on Wednesday issued his official support for answering “yes” to Proposition 9 to change the Utah County Commission into a mayor and county council.

Ainge, in a lengthly statement posted to Twitter, linked to an op-ed he wrote for the Deseret News in 2017 outlining his decision to consider running for Utah County Commission after former Commissioner Greg Graves made headlines for accusations of sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying. An investigator concluded Graves was seen as an “explosive” bully but found insufficient evidence to support the allegation of sexual harassment.

In that op-ed three years ago, Ainge called for “making the dysfunction and embarrassment of our county commission a thing of the past” and floated the idea of changing Utah County’s form of government as the area continued to grow.

“As our population grows, a three-member commission may be inadequate,” Ainge wrote at the time. “I have current concerns that the concentration of power in just three individuals has not served us well when one of the three is a bad actor.”

Wednesday, Ainge called back that op-ed and the “need to finally fix the dysfunction that has plagued the Utah County Commission. When I later decided to run, I knew it would take more than just changing personalities.”

Just like how Utah County “needed to put the county budget on a better fiscal trajectory” with the first property tax hike in 23 years, Ainge said residents also needed to “consider modifications to our form of government that would help lead to quality candidates, better representation and improved outcomes for our community.”

So that led to the creation of an independent committee to study the issue and recommend what form of government would best suite Utah County. Last year, that committee recommended the mayor-council format. The Utah County Commission, with two votes in support from Ainge and Commissioner Nathan Ivie up against a no from Commissioner Bill Lee, agreed to place the question on the ballot.

Now, it’s up to voters to decide what comes next. If Proposition 9 is approved, the first Utah County mayor and County Council will be elected during the 2022 general election and will replace the three-member County Commission in January 2023.

Ainge, in officially throwing his support behind Proposition 9, sought to make it known he did not intend to run for mayor if it passes.

“By placing this on the ballot 10 months ago, I knew it meant an end to my service as commissioner if the proposition passed,” Ainge said. “Those closest to me know that I’ve never had much desire to serve as county mayor and that I was hesitant to promote Prop 9 if I thought I might run for that position. Because I am now actively supporting Prop 9, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: I will not run for county mayor.”

Ainge said he hopes “this clarity will help voters consider the mayor-council form of government on its merits, instead of being concerned about the personalities who may ultimately run for the position.”

When asked if he intended to run for a council seat if not mayor, Ainge told the Deseret News in an interview Wednesday he hasn’t been “putting any thought” in running for a council seat, but he didn’t rule it out. However, right now he said he sees himself “most likely” jumping back into the private sector.

First, voters need to decide what comes next, Ainge said.

“I really would love for voters of Utah County to evaluate Prop 9 on its merits and how it can lead to better governance and representation,” Ainge said. “And right now, there’s been a lot of misinformation including some about which personalities may be gearing up for a race. And so I just thought it would be helpful to be clear that that’s not in any way my motivation for supporting Prop 9. I just think it’s the right thing for our community.”

Ainge pointed to a form of government cost analysis that found the mayor, with a full-time salary of $120,000 and benefits of $47,000 and the five part-time council seats funded at $20,000 each would cost a total of $267,000 a year — a 46% savings compared to the over $497,000 spent on the Utah County Commission in 2020, at about $120,000 in yearly salary and $46,000 in benefits for each of the three members.

Lee, in an interview Wednesday, said it’s no secret he opposes the form of government change, noting he organized a political issues committee to raise money for a campaign against it.

To Lee, a Utah County mayor and council would put the county on a trajectory toward “massive tax increases and bloating” in government budget like what he said has happened in Salt Lake County over the last two decades since that county made the switch.

“Why do we want to change to a form that has proven itself in the last 20 years ... to bloat and excessive spending?” Lee said. “Why? I say no. I just don’t see the need for it.”

When asked about the cost analysis that shows the new form of government would save the county money, Lee called it a “bait and switch.” He argued that the new form of government would eventually lead to “more and more hiring” and long term lead to a larger budget.

Ainge, however, doesn’t see it that way. He argues the future of Utah County services and its budget will still lie in the hands of voters.

“Those two forms of government have the same authority. So the reason why Utah County is smaller and has a more limited government is we don’t have non-essential services like rec centers and golf courses like Salt Lake County. And we also have more conservative members of the commission. And so long as those two things continue to be with the mayor-council form, nothing changes.

“In fact,” Ainge added, “you could argue something like a tax increase would be even more difficult to pass because then you need three out of five votes rather than just two out of three commissioners.”

Ainge also pointed out the mayor-council form could solve some unresolved grey areas when it comes to deciding what actions taken by the Utah County Commission are legislative versus executive actions — since the commission currently serves as both an executive and legislative leader. That causes difficulty distinguishing what actions might, for example, be subject to a referendum. Under a mayor-council form, its clear that the mayor’s actions are executive (and not subject to a referendum) and the council’s actions are legislative (and are subject to a referendum).

To Ainge, voters will also be able to have more targeted representation by a council seat with clear district lines drawn, rather than three commissioners all catering to the entire region.

“These new geographic districts will make it guaranteed that every district will have representation,” Ainge said.

Lee, however, doesn’t see a reason to change the form of government.

“When I look at this proposition ... my first thought easily goes to, ‘Why?’ Lee said. “It’s served us well. “

Lee, when asked if he will run for mayor or council if the proposition passes, didn’t rule out either. He said he’d rather wait to decide until after the fate of Proposition 9 is decided.

“I always leave things on the table,” he said. “But I would hope that we could defeat this.”