Despite recent setbacks, Utah County should do whatever is necessary to change its governance structure to a full-time mayor with seven part-time county council members. That’s what the county needs as it grows rapidly and becomes more diverse.
As I’ve written previously, in some ways, Utah County is the future of Utah. It is booming in growth, jobs and high-tech entrepreneurism. In a few decades it could be Utah’s most populous county. Its thriving technology sector contrasts with its agricultural roots. And agriculture is still important in the county.
It’s a much different county than when I grew up in the farming area of west Orem. At that time most everyone was either a farmer or worked for Geneva Steel. Today, subdivisions, shopping centers – and Utah Valley University — have replaced the farms.
Utah County is diverse, crowded, and vibrant. Between BYU and UVU, it has a very large student population.
But the county’s current form of government is antiquated for a large, diverse, growing county.
A county Good Governance Advisory Board recommended the new form of government, and two of three commissioners were recently poised to place the proposal on the ballot for a vote of the people.
But at the last minute, Commissioner Bill Lee and a few other county residents filed a petition triggering a campaign to collect signatures for a very different form of government, one comprised of five commission members.
A five-member commission wouldn’t be any better than the old three-member county commission. It makes no sense for Utah County.
County commissions work fine for smaller, more homogenous counties. But they don’t separate the executive and legislative functions of county governments, as is needed in a fast-growing, diverse county.
The Utah County Commission has had its share of challenges lately, including a very public feud with Gov. Gary Herbert (a Utah County guy himself) over transit board appointments, a commissioner accused of bullying and sexual harassment, and recent concerns about the county’s election performance.
I’m not suggesting that the form of government is responsible for these problems, although it could have contributed.
The bigger issue is that the various areas of Utah County deserve their own representation on a county council so their concerns and issues are better addressed. It’s impossible for a three- or five-member commission to represent all the varied needs and issues in Utah County.
An even bigger issue is the need to separate the legislative branch of government that makes the policy from the executive branch that carries out the policy.
When commissioners both make the policy and then carry out the policy, there exists a greater risk for problems and even corruption to occur.
The governance change is needed to provide greater accountability and transparency in the executive/legislative functions.
A mayor/council governance system provides more accountability. Voters in council districts know exactly who makes the policy, and their own council member is more accessible and responsible to them.
They also know the mayor is responsible to carry out the policies. They know where the buck stops.
Even if it takes four or six years to get to the right governance structure, it will be worth it. I hope Utah County will always remain a conservative county and appreciate its rural roots. But it’s no longer your grandpa’s (that would be me) Utah County. It’s time to modernize so each county area has its own council member.