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In our opinion: Usurping local control

Published: Friday, Feb. 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

The Utah State Capitol Building.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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The battle over whether states have authority to dictate to local governments was effectively settled in 1868. That was the year Iowa Supreme Court Justice John Dillon wrote an opinion that has become known as Dillon's Rule. Simply put, local governments enjoy powers only as state legislatures decide to grant them. The only exceptions would be for guarantees provided in state or federal constitutions. Local governments are the creation of the states.

This does not mean, however, that such impositions are always right or advisable.

For instance, a bill pending at the Utah Legislature right now, SB136, would keep cities and counties from restricting billboard owners except through condemnation. For more than a year now, Salt Lake City has been working on an ordinance to regulate how the owners of existing billboards can convert them into electronic signs. Billboards are private property. Owners will argue strongly that there is a First Amendment component to the messages they convey, although that is a weak argument considering the many options available for paid advertising these days. But cities are best equipped to understand their own residents' concerns over matters such as aesthetics.

Conservatives often cite as a mantra the idea that the best government is the one closest to the people. State lawmakers who don't necessarily live in the city may have authority to override a city council and mayor, but doing so rarely is sound political philosophy. Local residents elect leaders to handle such matters, and courts can adjudicate whether rights are violated. City council members understand and are accountable to the needs of their constituents.

State lawmakers this year also are considering SB115, which would extend a moratorium on creating a specific historic district in Salt Lake City's Yalecrest neighborhood. Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, who represents Sandy.

As a practical matter, Salt Lake City residents tend to be more progressive-minded than those in the rest of the state, and that tends to rankle state lawmakers. But the concept of home rule should not be conditioned on the people of a certain jurisdiction having a particular political philosophy. Viewpoints can differ legitimately in a free society; that is healthy.

Those two bills aren't the only ones that would override the Salt Lake City Council. Others have been proposed to regulate taxis, change the city's landlord ordinance, challenge city rules against excessive engine idling and concerning the sales tax exemptions of public golf courses. In the past, state lawmakers have micromanaged school boards and inserted themselves into zoning controversies.

They may have a right to do so, but that doesn't make doing so right.

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