Is Salt Lake County facing a return to a political spoils system that allows elected officials to fill key government posts with hand-picked supporters?

Democratic County Commissioners Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley say no, but their actions indicate otherwise.In January, the two newest members of the Salt Lake County Commission wasted little time taking control of the commission from the Republicans. Shortly after being sworn in, Horiuchi and Bradley quickly used their 2-1 voting majority to unseat Republican hold-over Mike Stewart as commission chairman and name Bradley to the post.

No one cried foul and rightfully so. After all, that's the way it's done in all 29 Utah counties. The majority party determines who sits as chairman.

But Salt Lake County's new power brokers want to take change a step further. This week Bradley and Horiuchi voted to form a five-member committee to study a plan that could remove 30 or more mid-level managers from the county's merit system and make their jobs political appointments subject to the whim and fancy of elected leaders. The plan is aimed specifically at those managers in policymaking positions.

That's a scary proposition considering that majority control of county commissions could change every two to four years.

Bradley and Horiuchi, acting in the absence of Stewart who was in Washington, D.C., at the time, deny that the move is intended to return the "spoils system" or that the plan is a vendetta aimed at any one specific county employee.

The commissioners say the proposal is prompted by a belief that division managers should set policies reflecting the philosophies of the elected officials for whom they work.

History has amply documented the failings of governments overly dependent on political appointment for filling key positions.

Those failings were directly responsibile for the development of government merit systems. Such systems provide continuity and allow non-elected officials to carry on the everyday workings of government in an orderly and reliable manner.

Understandably, the new commissioners want assurance that county policies reflect the intent of those elected to lead the county.

Does that desire justify the proposed change? Hardly.

While it may be more cumbersome, the merit system still provides elected officials with recourse in accomplishing the goals outlined by the commissioners. After all, commissioners have direct control over the things most important to county employees including pay raises, promotions, transfers and other career enhancing opportunities.

Horiuchi's suggestion that political appointments "will generate a much stronger loyalty and bond to the public" is nonsense. Faced with possible job loss, the employee has little option but to support the person controlling the appointment.

Hopefully the new commissioners will take time to review the lessons of history and abandon this short-sighted proposal before it, too, spoils.