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Utah local elections: Plan to change Utah County form of government spiraling to defeat

Growth issues fuel several divisive races in Tooele, Weber counties

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — Utah County voters appear to have shot down the county’s chance this year to change its form of government, according to unofficial election results.

Proposition 9, the question of whether Utah County should change its form of government from its current three-member commission to a part-time, five-member council and full-time mayor continued to languish after more results were posted Wednesday evening, with nearly 60% of voters against it and just over 40% in favor.

Election results will not be official until the final canvass in two weeks. At about 66% turnout, more Utah County votes could be tallied, but Proposition 9 supporters face an uphill climb to close the gap.

The ballot question had the potential to change the trajectory of Utah County’s future. To its supporters, it could have created 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, clear up executive-legislative power gray areas, and save the county money.

But its opponents argued 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.

Dissenters’ arguments seemed to have resonated more with most Utah County voters, even though the change was recommended by the county-created, independent Utah County Good Governance Advisory Board.

The question had divided support from Utah County’s current commissioners. Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge and Commissioner Nathan Ivie (who lost reelection in the GOP primary), supported approving the proposition. They argued that as Utah County grows, it would benefit from closer government representation.

But Commissioner Bill Lee, who was the lone commissioner to vote against putting it on the ballot, organized a political issues committee to raise money to campaign against it.

“It’s going to be defeated,” Lee said in an interview with the Deseret News on Wednesday, adding that he is “pleased” with the margins, which he said “sends a resounding message that Utah County voters like the three-member commission, or at least they don’t like the proposition that was put forward.”

“What we really want is what’s best for Utah County,” he said. “We want Utah County citizens to feel comfortable and confident in their form of government.”

Ainge, who stated his support of Proposition 9 in the weeks leading up to Election Day, seemed to concede for the proposition in a post on Twitter later Wednesday,

“Prop 9 didn’t pass. That’s OK,” he tweeted. “It’s a privilege to live in America and vote for candidates/issues we care about in free and fair elections. Knowing that we live in a county where the rule of law prevails takes most of the sting out of any particular election outcome.”

Lee said “a whole bunch of factors” likely influenced the proposition’s defeat, but he said it likely had most to do with many Utah County voters feeling unfamiliar with the proposition and cautious about what it would mean for the county’s future. Lee said many of his constituents would tell him, “I don’t want to look like Salt Lake County, nor do I want to give that much power to one person,” a mayor.

Lee, in his arguments against Proposition 9, claimed a Utah County mayor and council would put the county toward “massive tax increases and bloating” in government budgets like what he said has happened in Salt Lake County over the last two decades since that county made the switch.

That’s even though a cost analysis showed the mayor-council form would save the county money. The cost analysis showed the mayor’s 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.

But Lee still argued the new form would eventually lead to “more and more hiring” and a larger budget long term.

Other county races

Issues of growth in rural Tooele County fueled several divisive races — with at least one too close to call.

Two propositions have big implications for the future of the unincorporated area of Erda, and one decided the fate of a major Kennecott-owned development in northern Tooele County, near Lake Point.

In Erda, an unincorporated area of Tooele County between Stansbury Park and Grantsville, a ballot question of whether the area should incorporate to form a town of its own hangs in the balance.

As of Wednesday afternoon, only 41 votes separated the approval or rejection of Erda’s Proposition 20. That’s up from 13 votes earlier Wednesday morning, so the initiative may be gaining traction. But with 51.1% and 934 votes, supporters still had a thin lead to the dissenting 48.8%, 893 votes. If it does pass, a five-member council form of government had the most support, with 37.6% of the vote.

Supporters of incorporating Erda argued it would allow the area’s roughly 2,600 residents to have better control of their town’s destiny, fearful that the Tooele County Commission’s control of the area would only lead to more rezoning and increased housing density. Opposition to the incorporation effort argued the area would not have the tax base to sustain itself, and ultimately lead to tax increases on residents to pay for services.

Other Tooele County propositions — referendums on two major developments — appear to be soundly defeated.

Proposition 1, which if approved would have ratified the Shoshone Village, a development the Tooele County Commission voted to approve with a rezone of about 120 acres located south of Erda Way and east of state Route 26, from rural residential, with a five-acre minimum for single family homes to residential homes with up to three houses per acre.

Tooele County citizens opposed to the Shoshone Village — protesting its density in an agricultural area — gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot. As of Wednesday, over 68% of Tooele County voters opposed the development, likely defeating the rezone.

Another referendum on development, Proposition 2, dealt with a massive, 1,444-acre planned community near Stansbury Park and Lakepoint called Adobe Rock Ranch on land owned by Kennecott Utah Copper. The development would have added about 4,710 residential units in northern Tooele County, with an average density of 3.3 units per acre, as well as commercial, retail and open space, to be built over 15 to 20 years.

Proposition 2 is also likely to be defeated, after more than 70% of Tooele County voters shot it down, compared to less than 30% supporters. Proponents argued it would be a well-planned community and accommodate future growth. Those opposed argued it would change the character of rural Tooele County and bring more traffic gridlock to the area.

In Weber County, another incorporation effort appears to be headed toward defeat.

Proposition 18, if approved, would have incorporated land west of Plain City, Marriott-Slaterville and West Haven.

As of Wednesday, over 59% of the area’s voters denied the incorporation, compared to nearly 41% in support. Supporters argued the incorporation would help keep decisions local and closer to the residents as opposed to the Weber County Commission. Opposition groups warned it would stifle growth and lead to tax increases.

In Davis County, Kaysville voters had a unique decision: whether the city should enact a $22 million, up to 30-year bond for a municipal fiber optic network. The race was too close to call. Ahead by only 171 votes and 50.6%, opposition to the bond was prevailing as of Wednesday. But supporters, with 49.4% could still possibly close the gap.

In Millard County, another race is seeing narrow margins over a proposition to ban hog farms. As of Wednesday, opposition to the hog farm ban, Proposition 6, was in the lead with nearly 52.4% of the vote, but only ahead by 230 votes.

Close legislative races

Three Democrats in Salt Lake County suburbs were still on track Wednesday to pick up some previously Republican-held House seats, but margins remained narrow.

In House District 39, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, continued to trail with 48.8% of the vote to Democrat Lynette Wendel’s 51.2%. Only 236 votes divided their races Wednesday afternoon.

In House District 38, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, was also in trouble, trailing with 46.5% of the vote to Democrat Ashlee Matthews’ nearly 53.5%. Hutchings is only 503 votes behind.

And in House District 45, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, was lagging behind Democrat Wendy Davis, who is ahead with 52.6% to Eliason’s 47.4%, separated by 640 votes.

Meanwhile, some House GOP incumbents are barely hanging on to their seats.

Just 235 votes were keeping Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, in his District 49 seat, only 50.8% ahead of Democrat Siamak Khadjenoury’s 49.2%.

Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, is ahead by only 182 votes with 51.4% against Democrat Fatima Dirie in House District 33.

Election results aren’t official until the final canvass in two weeks.