Salt Lake County soon may be run by political cronies rather than professionals, and the public will suffer, the one Republican on the County Commission warns.

Mike Stewart, who for 10 years served on a Republican-dominated commission, said this week he worries about attempts by newly elected Democrats to remove employee protections from the county's division directors."There will be more loyalists than professionals in county government, and the public will suffer," Stewart said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he is attending meetings as president of the National Association of Counties.

Because of a compromise struck years ago, the county's division directors, like the thousands of employees under them, are protected by a merit system. To fire them, commissioners must prove they have a good reason - reasons other than that the director does not share the commissioner's political philosophies.

Commissioners have total control over only three department directors, the county manager and the county spokesperson, as well as their own personal staffs.

But Democratic commissioners Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley believe the 30 or so division directors should share their political vision. They argue that campaign promises could get lost in bureaucratic red tape.

Earlier this week they began appointing a committee to study which of the county's jobs should be removed from the protection of the merit system. They offered to let Stewart choose one of the committee members, but he said he may decline.

"My concern is greater than it was before," he said. "I've seen what's happened since they (the Democrats) have come."

Stewart said Bradley and Horiuchi already have given county jobs to friends, which shows the current system is flexible enough.

"They've put in more followers and compatriots since they've been in office than has been done in a decade," he said.

Stewart said the Democrats already have killed a proposed golf course in Dimple Dell Park and started a toll system in Mill Creek Canyon - evidence they can get things done under the current system. "You can accomplish any objective with the personnel we have now."

He called assurances that minimum education and experience levels will be required for the jobs a "ruse."

Stewart said the move, if successful, would add another layer of government. "You will get someone in there who is your friend or your crony and all of a sudden he will realize it is a job that requires someone with professional expertise. He will have to go out and hire someone with expertise to work for him," Stewart said.

Despite the arguments, county commissioners will not be the ones to decide if the merit system changes. A three-member Merit Commission, all appointed by the previous County Commission, will decide.