The Founding Fathers convened in 1787 to create a document that gave rule to the people.
Over 200 years later, Tooele City officials are still discussing how much the public can be trusted. Still, the city council meeting on Feb. 10 in the city building was democracy in action, as those in attendance openly discussed the strengths and weaknesses of keeping Tooele’s city charter and various types of government that might result.
Also in attendance, David Church, of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, offered his independent analysis.
As those in attendance discussed the issue, the public’s willingness to research issues enough to utilize a charter was brought into question.
In addition, some critics of the charter, which allows for a strong mayor form of government, also questioned whether an official chosen by the public could be trusted to run a city.
The debate today sounds much like the one almost 40 years ago, except backwards.
Back then, 1,699 voters indicated they supported the charter and only 221 voted against it. Voters also indicated they wanted a mayor, council form of government to replace the city manager and city council form of government they’d had prior to the election.
The Tooele Transcript-Bulletin following the election described the charter’s implications.
“For the first time in its history, city residents will step from the limitations of a Third Class City classification and become the first city of its size in Utah to take advantage of the home rule privileges granted under the Utah Constitution.
“It is the culmination of efforts by a number of interested Tooele residents who felt that a thorough study of Tooele City Government was needed. Particularly it was a victory for the efforts of the 14- member Tooele City Commission who carried on a study for twoand one-half years of Tooele City government and culminated their efforts with discussions before many groups in Tooele City …”
Not in compliance
Today, many are questioning whether the charter should be repealed — in part because of public apathy. Some are also suggesting Tooele City become a city manager/city counsel form of government, weakening the role of the mayor.
One thing is sure, most agree the charter should not stay the way it is as it currently contains “outdated” regulations, which are not being followed.
For instance, a section requires Tooele City police officers to reside in the city, which Councilman Steve Bevan said was likely to ensure quick reaction time from the small number of police officers almost 40 years ago when the charter was written. Today, police officers are being allowed to live in neighboring communities like Erda and Stansbury Park, although the charter has not yet been amended.
The current charter also requires two members of the Tooele City Council to sit on the city’s planning and zoning commission, which is unusual. In addition, the charter says, “The departments of police, fire and public health shall be combined into a Department of Public Safety,” which is not being followed. Currently, the city follows the state law, contracting with the county to provide a health department.
The city council will determine if the issue should go to vote on March 16.
But according to Bevan, those are small problems, easily changed at an election.
Bevan believes the charter is a valuable resource and gives Tooele a sense of identity.
“I think it’s a really important document and it needs to be fixed and we need to look at some stuff on that and make some changes …. It’s ironic because part of the reason they want to change it is so we can change the form of government, and I really oppose that too.”
Pat Dunlavy, city recorder and a Tooele resident of 37 years, is in favor of keeping the charter as well.
“Basically it’s worked for all this time, we haven’t had any problems with it. In my opinion it was very well thought out. It allowed any changes to be approved by the citizens and not by the elected officials,” Dunlavy said.
In contrast, members of a committee Mayor Charlie Roberts put together to study the issue almost a year ago are unanimously opposed to the charter.
Most outspoken was perhaps council member Steve Pruden. “I think it’s time to repeal it, yes. I think that it’s outlived its usefulness. It’s very cumbersome to change and adapt to new things that come along and as the city changes and morphs to a new entity [it’s no longer needed.]
When the city was smaller, the document was a wonderful thing, but now our problems are much bigger,” Pruden said.
Yet, Bevan believes the fact it’s difficult to change protects the public from bad leaders. The charter can only be updated every two years by a public election. That means voters would either decide this November or in two-and-a -half years if it should be changed or discontinued, Another member of the committee, Shawn Milne, likes the idea, but said for today’s society he’s leaning against the idea of a charter.
“I do like that it seems about as democratic as a municipal government could be, but relatively speaking, few citizens participate in our general election so I believe few voters would know what a charter is,” said Milne. “The idea of charters is that a community is actively involved and we obviously have not seen that level of involvement for several decades.”
The charter includes regulations requiring open meetings and the public to vote on making changes, which basically puts power in the hands of the people. But, Pruden said the society is much more complex today and expressed concern about apathetic voters.
“The education process was much easier back then,” he said. At the meeting, Church said one special right the charter does allow is the right of eminent domain, say to run a utility line to Stockton.
But, committee member Andrea Cahoon sees that as “a political bombshell,” rather than a benefit. In addition, she sees the charter as inflexible, difficult to change and impeding the political process. She’s concerned that state and city laws conflict and sometimes those laws are in opposition to building codes.
Still, Bevan disagrees, affirming the state would be after us in seconds if we were violating state law.
Committee member Frank T. Mohlman believes what has happened is constitution has gotten so specific that it’s really inflexible. He recommends, “general guiding principles if redone.”
Church agreed with others in attendance, that if kept, the charter should be broadly written so it didn’t have to be changed as often. While Tooele City is not currently following its charter, if it were challenged it would be forced to be in compliance.
When it really comes down to it, Church said the decision is not that important. “It hasn’t made any difference for 40 years,” Church said. Councilman John Hansen said, “If we keep it, we have to be on top of it to make sure it does what we want it to do.”
Johnson said he didn’t care either way, but asked who was willing to step up and write the new charter. If no one was, he suggested that it be given up. The names of City Attorney Roger Baker and David Church were suggested, although no decision was made.
At the meeting, Baker inquired what could be done to change it and make it an asset to Tooele County.
“I don’t see we’re getting much benefits with the charter … but if we change it, do we want to change so we do have benefits?” Baker said.
Baker didn’t take a position for or against the charter, rather he said, “my recommendation is if we keep the charter make it mean something.”
A house divided:
John Hansen expressed a need for consensus before going to the voters to avoid a “division of community.”
“I think if we don’t have consensus we’re dealing with a nightmare,” said Hansen. “I just have a real uncomfortable feeling if we’re not all together.”
In conclusion, Mike Johnson summarized the various opinions, saying, “We’re all over the board. That’s a problem.”
“That’s a challenge,” corrected Shawn Milne.
If on March 16 city council members decide the issue should go to vote, there are two questions that could be asked: Mayor Charlie Roberts says appeal. “I’d be in favor of its going to the voters … to see if it should be appealed or not,” said Roberts.
In contrast, Bevan wants the question to be whether the charter should be amended. “I just hope the people in the city are smart enough to vote for the charter and not kick it out,” said Bevan.