Many Utah cities and counties spend a lot of money each year to hire lobbyists who argue on their behalf to state and federal lawmakers. At first glance, this would seem a waste of taxpayer funds, particularly when a resident of Sandy, for instance, learns he helped pay for both a $170,000 city lobbyist and a $160,000 county lobbyist, and that both will go toward influencing state lawmakers perhaps on opposite sides of the same issue.
But that resident could blame a lot of the problem on the state Legislature.
Lawmakers have made local-government lobbyists a necessity. A good case in point is the current talk of a bill that would strip much of the power many Utah mayors enjoy.
The idea is being discussed by Rep. Peggy Wallace, R-West Jordan. As reported in this newspaper, it would requires cities of a certain size that have opted for a mayor-council form of government to hire a city manager. That manager would hire and fire appointed workers and negotiate labor contracts and real estate transactions. The idea is to have a full-time professional handle all the important details, freeing mayors to concentrate on grand policies, programs and economic development.
The underlying message is that politicians aren't qualified to do that kind of heavy lifting a message full of irony, considering it originated with a part-time, citizen Legislature that often has little governing experience.
But the proposal is dripping with other ironies, as well. This is exactly the sort of thing that drives state lawmakers crazy when imposed on them by the federal government. Hiring a city manager would take money, and the bill isn't likely to include state funding to cover those costs. If passed, it would become an unfunded mandate every bit as much as the Help America Vote Act, the No Child Left Behind law or anything else that Congress has required and states have had to fund.
And it would remove a measure of local autonomy. Utah long has been guided by the notion that the best way to govern is to keep government closest to the people. Presumably, this is why voters years ago rejected a plan to consolidate many of Salt Lake County's cities into one. People here like having their municipal decisions handled on a small, manageable level, even if that does lead to some inefficiencies in police work, economic development and other public services.
Utah's many cities have a lot of problems. But the political tug-of-war many mayors and city councils experience is a part of good, representative government.
One of the most fundamental choices the residents of a city can make is to decide which form of government they prefer. It shouldn't take a high-paid lobbyist to explain that to state lawmakers, but that may be necessary.