As many are aware, the Tooele County form of government will change at the start of the new year.
Tooele County has had a three member commission form since statehood in 1896. A commissioner has both executive and legislative government authority.
Tooele County government will change to a five-member part time county council elected in geographical districts with an appointed manager at the beginning of the new year.
This change of government form was decided by voters in the 2018 election. Tooele County will join three other Utah counties — Summit, Wasatch and Grand — in Utah with this governmental form.
Council districts were established in 2019. Council elections were held in 2020 to fill three seats on the new council. Two of the sitting commissioners will convert to County Council members as part of that process.
The County Commission has been examining the required changes for the last two years.
Conversion to this new form isn’t without challenges and hopefully benefits.
The intent of the Tooele County Form of Government Study Committee’s recommendation was to better divide the executive and legislative functions of Tooele County. This was meant to add clearer checks and balances in the County government and to have greater opportunities to view the decision making processes. There was certainly merit in that recommendation.
While the selected council-manager form of government doesn’t fully accomplish that division — the new executive part of the county government, the county manager, will report to the legislative branch of the government — the county council actions should be clearly visible in most circumstances.
Interestingly, by state statute, the legislative council can still claim and retain any parts of the executive function that it desires to keep. Hopefully, the council will use wisdom in selecting what to retain.
With an appointed manager, the Tooele County voters lose the direct voice in choosing who will direct many of the County’s functions and will make decisions as to how county resources will be directed. The voters must rely on the judgement of the majority of the County Council members in selecting and retaining that County manager position. The person appointed as manager will be key in the efficient function of the new county government.
There will be a loss of political clout in dealing with other political entities.
There is a certain political presence carried with the County Commission position. This is especially the case in the western part of the United States. State and Federal officials, and other Utah counties, are accustomed to dealing with elected officials that can make executive decisions.
In most political arenas where Tooele County operates, appointed managers have no seat or credible voice at the bargaining table. To accomplish a county goal involving other government entities, will now require more steps and more patience on the part of agencies the County must interact with.
In a competitive funding arena, it increases the difficulty of success.
Tooele County has had full-time commissioners for the last few years. In the change to part-time legislative council members, a loss of profound understanding of County operations should be expected.
While that loss of detailed understanding should be picked up to a large degree by the manager, the policy making council may be less informed than the commission was previously.
There are concerns about how county projects will be carried out in the new form of government.
In their executive function, County Commissioners have taken charge of things like promotion of tourism, economic development, participation in boards, councils and committees that directly affect county issues and funding.
How these project functions get handed off, and to whom, remains to be seen.
These are things that Tooele County will have to work through that other counties with the manager-councils routinely have struggled with. There will likely need to be some new personnel added to cover some of those functions
I expect that the minutiae of policy and budgeting work of Tooele County will be more available in this form of government. Because the council is legislative in nature, and because Utah public meeting laws require open deliberation, there will be more robust public discussion of issues in council meetings.
Part-time council members won’t be in contact with each other as frequently as to the full time commission, and three council members would constitute a quorum and can’t meet and discuss county business without a noticed meeting and agenda for that meeting.
Necessarily I’d expect council meetings to be longer than the previous County Commission meetings because of the need for more open detailed public discussion on the issues.
Having a five-member council consider a topic should give more insight than a three-member commission.
None of the listed challenges are insurmountable. The members of the incoming council have already met a few times in order to be prepared for the government change.
The council seems dedicated to serve the public and find ways around obstacles.
In county government, success is more dependent who occupies the seats, than the form.
I would ask the public for some patience as there will be some learning as we go to this new change of government.
Tom Tripp has served as a County Commissioner and chairman of the County Commission for the past two years. He is one of two County Commissioners that will transition to members of the new County Council at the first of the new year.