For years in the Utah State Senate, Greg Bell was considered one of the good guys.
In a sometimes reactionary atmosphere, Bell sought consensus and earned the trust of fellow GOP senators, who elected him into majority leadership.
So when newly-minted Republican Gov. Gary Herbert asked Bell last year to be his lieutenant governor, and run the Utah Elections Office, some wondered how Bell would react if attacked as a partisan “shill” (his word) for Republican political advantage?
Well, Bell is getting a taste of those bitter fruits these days as he is forced to rule, as the state’s top elections officer, on a variety of issues – most notably electronic signatures and the citizen initiative process.
It’s a bit ironic for Bell, who always believed in open government and either sponsored or supported any number of government reform measures in the Senate – which during much of the 2000s some senators took glee in voting down.
“Out of the chute when I took office in 2003 I supported” various reform measures, Bell said in an interview with UtahPolicy.com.
“I was for more disclosure” of campaign contributions; “limits in gifts” from lobbyists; “and especially not allowing legislators” to make personal use of campaign funds after leaving office.
“To have a (former) speaker of the House leave with hundreds of thousands of dollars that he could use personally -- not right,” said Bell, who represented a Davis County Senate district from 2003 to 2009.
Bell said he has to be careful these days what motives he may assign to different groups of people who are severely criticizing his actions, especially concerning e-signatures on citizen initiative petitions and deadlines for getting signatures qualified for the 2010 and 2012 general election ballots.
Just this past week, Bell said he had no choice but to follow the law (and the advice of his government counsel – Attorney General Mark Shurteff) in denying the request by Utahns for Ethical Government to have their initiative certified to the 2012 ballot.
(I won’t go through all of the legal arguments for and against that ruling here; they have been much in the news lately.)
“I can’t allow my feelings on the substance” of e-signatures or extending the signature deadline from April 15 to mid-August (one year from UEG filing its petition last summer), said Bell. “I have to follow the law.”
In his private profession, Bell is an attorney (although he did not make his own legal decisions in these cases). “As an attorney I know that you can’t make a pancake so flat as to not have two sides.”
Thus, it is only natural that anyone who finds themselves on the other side of a decision by his office to object, maybe even take offense.
“But I do try to make fair and objective decisions,” says Bell, who had returned to legal work several years ago after spending some time as real estate and commercial developer.
Outside of strictly legal interpretation of Utah statutes that Bell says required him to deny UEG’s requests, Bell notes that no other states allow e-signature initiative signatures.
That tells him the technology is not yet adequate to do so; the political will in the legislatures lacking.
And, he points out, while some states are moving toward e-voting (there will be bills allowing e-voting introduced in the 2011 Utah Legislature), e-signatures on initiatives is a very different thing.
“In voting – and in e-voting – you would have a computer process overseen by counties and the state,” said Bell.
But in initiative e-signatures the computers – and any computer security – would be handled by groups completely outside of government – the petition organizers.
Who knows what kind of computer verification they would have; what kind of security they would have; what kind of controls at any level they would have? He asks.
Some groups may be well funded and organized, like UEG. But others could be two or three folks doing it on their own. And his office would be tasked with verifying those e-signatures, certifying to citizens that all proper and legal requirements were met?
“No way,” under the current, unregulated and inadequate laws on e-commerce now in state government, he says.
Constructing and controlling e-voting and initiative e-signatures “is wholly and appropriately” in the hands of the Legislature, and should not be left up to his office to decide – “we don’t have the staff, we don’t have the ability to do it” as it now stands, he says.
On a personal level, how does Bell – who considers himself a champion of open government – dealing with the criticism now being leveled at him?
“Two ideas,” he responds.
First, proud of his legal profession and his own reputation, he resented being called “an outlaw” in a legal filing before the Utah Supreme Court. “That was just not right.”
“I was acting in good faith. And the Supreme Court shouldn’t have allowed that” to happen to him, he said.
Second, Bell says the high court justices “had to stretch” to reach the decision that requires his office to “count e-signatures (already gathered), after ordering us to make a rule” to count them. In short, what the high court ordered simply couldn’t be done, he said, putting him and his co-workers in a difficult position.
“The Legislature must write a law that says you can do this” in collecting e-signatures on initiatives “and you can’t do that,” says Bell.
Overall, Bell believes Utah citizens should be able to adopt law – or in the case of vouchers, reject laws – through the petition process.
“In rejecting vouchers the people rose up” and told the Legislature that it had done wrong.
But on the other side, it is also wrong for political opponents to question his personal and professional integrity.
This past week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Corroon (the Salt Lake County Mayor) and his lieutenant governor candidate, GOP state Rep. Sheryl Allen, issued a press release saying the 110,000 Utahns who signed the UEG petition shouldn’t be ignored by Bell’s office.
“We should be setting a high water mark for ethics and giving citizens trust that their government works for them, and not special interests,” said Corroon.
“The Elections Office ought to assist citizens in their constitution rights. The intent to block the 100,000 plus signatures is a disservice to Utahns,” said Allen, R-Bountiful.
So it appears, says Bell, that his UEG decisions will be part of November governor’s race.
“There is a major political fight going on here” behind scenes and in front of voters, says Bell, who declined to characterize the politics further.
“I’m acting as a decision-maker in this case,” he said. “And I uphold the law.”
“I just ask that just because I decide a case against you, you don’t say I’m a shill for the Legislature.
“I wish adults could learn it’s possible for a politician in office to act in good faith; that just because you disagree that I’m dishonest.”