Background

The Weber County chapter of the League of Women Voters has been promoting a change in our form of county government since 1981, spanning forums, petitions, ballots and lawsuits. The reforming of Weber County government has resurfaced recently and Weber County voters could well approve to study change this time considering it received 48% of the vote last time around in 1998.

A long history: The form of government we have in Weber County is unique in all American government in that there is no separation between between executive and legislative functions, resulting in few checks and balances to the power held by county commissioners. Our national constitution separates the executive functions of government (running the country) from the legislative functions (making the law and providing the money); congress makes the laws through legislation and provides money for the president to run things according to the law. State constitutions balance power the same way; the legislature makes the laws and provides money for the governor to runs things according to the law. Why do county commissioners in Utah have all this unchecked power?

The story is a long one. About a thousand years ago Counts and Countesses were selected to carry out the King’s rule in the countryside beyond the cities in England and France; our word “count-ies” follows from this history of counts and countesses. Eight hundred years later, appointed county governments in America were ruling the countryside beyond the cities as an appendage to state government. By a hundred years ago, county officials were elected, but were still administering state policy in the countryside beyond the cities. Up until then, areas outside the cities and towns were sparsely populated and county government was kind of the minimum required to administer the policies of the state. Throughout this history of Norman-English-American law, the primary purpose of county government was to administer the feudal or legal policies of the state in areas beyond the cities. It is a relatively recent development that the purpose of county governments has evolved into one providing municipal-like services to large populations of residents. (Source: a paper by Gavin Andersen; considered to be the "bible" of county government in Utah).

From the 1850’s to 1972, the Utah Constitution treated counties as a division of state government and required that all counties have an elected, three-commissioner form of government. However, in 1972 the Utah legislature recognized the vast differences in wealth, population, area, and issues facing counties and aligned with a national movement to create alternative, more appropriate county governments. As of 2013, some 40% of counties nationwide, six in Utah, had chosen an alternative to the default, three-commissioner model. In Utah, Wasatch, Summit, Cache, Grand and Salt Lake Counties have chosen to govern with a separation of the executive and legislative functions while Morgan county chose simply to have more commissioners. In all cases, and as required by state law, the primary purpose behind the change was more transparency, more public discussion, less risk of corruption and collusion, and more accountability to the citizens. As of 2016 an optional form of county government is in place for 44% of Utah’s population (as of 2016).

So, apart from possible abuse of power due to the lack of checks and balances among three people, what else is wrong with the default, three-commissioner, no separation of executive and legislative functions model? In the last couple of years much has been said (and done) about it.

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