Salt Lake County commissioners find themselves in an unenviable position - preparing to seek voter approval for a general obligation bond to finance construction of a satellite jail that will likely require a property tax increase.
The task is made difficult by the strong public call for stiffer jail sentences and an equally strong outcry against additional tax increases.Yet if the public demands tougher jail terms for offenders, voters must face up to the obligation to provide a place to keep them.
The first challenge facing the commissioners is debate over how best to phrase the wording for the ballot question voters are scheduled to consider at a special election tentatively set for May 23.
The commissioners say they want to avoid making the vote a referendum on the project itself and to focus instead on whether general obligation bonds are the best way to finance the proposed minimum security "honor farm."
If that is what they want, then there are certain questions they must answer before the debate ends.
First, the voters have the right to know if the commission intends to move forward with the project even if voters reject the bond. If that is the case, the commissioners need to tell the voters what alternative financing methods are available, how they would be implemented, why a general obligation bond is considered a better option and what impact these other alternatives would have on property taxes.
Second, the voters have the right to know the details behind the decision to build the jail. Is more space needed? Have the courts ordered additional space? Are there other options? The pertinent supporting facts should be made available immediately to allow voters to analyze the information and prepare to make an informed choice at the ballot box.
Third, the voters have the right to know what is actually "needed" or "required." This is different from being told what is "wanted."
The commissioners should be prepared for a fight, and that shouldn't come as a surprise. The concern over how to word the ballot question indicates they are aware of the challenge ahead.
But the commissioners have one final obligation - to word the ballot question in precise, clear and unambiguous terms. There have been cases in which a ballot question required people to essentially vote "no" to approve a project, or vice versa.
There should be none of that. "Yes" should mean yes and "no" should mean no.
Voters also have an obligation. They must consider all information honestly and without bias before making their decision.
The merits of the jail will be hotly debated between now and the election and that is the way it should be. But when the voter enters the polling booth, the debate is left behind. At that point, the voter has the right to expect a question worded in clear, precise and unambiguous terms.