No surprises there.
We’re talking about last Tuesday’s Tooele County Government Study Committee meeting, during which its members were told by the Tooele County Commission, not to plan on a possible recommendation for a change in county government to automatically be placed on a future election ballot.
If the study committee determines the current 3-member county commission form of government should be changed, commissioners Myron Bateman, Wade Bitner and Sean Milne won’t let the matter go directly to voters to decide — as allowed by state code.
As reported in last Thursday’s front-page story, “County wants petition drive to put government study results on ballot,” the three commissioners said they want another petition — also allowed by state code — done first to help engage, educate and involve citizens on the issue. Milne further said, “If the citizens want it, I think the citizens need to step up,” and gathering petition signatures would mean proponents of change would have “skin in the game.”
Understandably, the commissioners’ words weren’t met with a chorus of enthusiasm by the study committee, which is comprised of 11 citizen volunteers from across the county, and who have been meeting weekly since February. The committee must submit a report of its findings and possible change of government recommendation to the county commission on or before Feb. 8, 2018.
In response to the commissioners’ statement, committee member Daniel Pacheco of Tooele, said at last Tuesday’s meeting he believes if the county commission doesn’t respect the study committee’s work enough to place a recommendation on a ballot for voters to decide, then people who have said the study committee is a “sham” might be right.
Pacheco may have hit the nail on the head. But the commissioners may also be right, even though their want of another petition may appear as nothing more than petty obstructionism, and it appears they’ve forgotten that more than 2,300 citizen signatures put the study committee (Proposition #14) on last November’s election ballot, followed by more than 11,500 voters — a 65 percent mandate — who said they did want a study committee appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in the form of government of Tooele County. With such a mandate, how much more citizen “step up” and “skin” does Milne need?
Yet, what makes the commissioners possibly right to want another petition is this: So far, public information meetings recently held around the county by the study committee to take public input have yet to pull in significant citizen participation. Also, audience seats at weekly study committee meetings are mostly empty. The commissioners could argue that because of low citizen turnout at meetings, the groundswell of support for the study committee’s work has waned since last November.
With that in mind, if the study committee does recommend a change in the form of county government, another petition drive may help “engage” and “involve” more citizens into the issue as the commissioners said. But we highly doubt the commissioners’ belief that another petition drive will also help “educate” more citizens about the issue.
Which, to us, is a far more important concern that requires the commissioners’ and study committee’s attention than another petition drive. If the study committee should recommend a change of government for the county, it is crucial that citizens understand, to the highest degree possible, the pros and cons of that recommendation before casting a vote in a future election.
If the study committee recommends a change, it will be one of the following as allowed by the Utah Legislature: An expanded county commission with five to seven commissioners who retain both legislative and executive powers, or a county council with legislative authority and an appointed county manager or elected county executive with executive authority.
Regardless of which option the study committee may recommend, each has its own set of good points and pitfalls that need to be explained in detail to citizens. That process will likely require one or more public meetings, extensive news coverage and analysis — and not just after the study is done by next February. The whole effort will likely have to be repeated leading up to a November election, which will be no small task.
The county commissioners’ want of another petition drive came as no surprise. There also shouldn’t be any hidden or unknown surprises with a possible change of government recommendation. The stakes are just too high to get this one wrong. Citizen education in this matter is of the highest importance, not another petition drive that will likely be easily and quickly achieved — and only go skin deep.