The nay-sayers were out again last week, trying to cast doubt on the need to separate the legislative and executive powers in Salt Lake County. For some reason, these people feel the county is different from most other democratic governments and that it is OK to concentrate all the power in the hands of three people.
They are wrong. The county manages a budget of more than $500 million (the second-largest governmental budget in the state), and serves roughly 800,000 residents. Of those, about 300,000 live in unincorporated areas. To them, the county acts as a city, providing all essential services. Does it make sense to place these enormous responsibilities in the hands of three people who don't represent geographic districts and who, as legislators, ratify their own executive decisions? Of course not.Yet that is what a handful of people who attended a change-of-government hearing this week maintain. They oppose a potential ballot measure that could replace the three-commissioner system with a nine-member council and an elected executive. Briefly, here are their objections:
- The county doesn't need the checks and balances of a council and executive. It already has nine independently elected officials.
- The elected executive would wield too much power.
- Most of what the county handles are executive matters. A county council would have little to do other than draft a budget.
The first point is the weakest of all. None of the county's independently elected officials has the power to veto the commission or to stop it from doing something untoward. County Attorney Doug Short proved that beyond a doubt. He tried to declare himself the commission's watchdog, and he lost. Now the commission has decimated his staff and stripped him of authority.
All county elected officials come to the commission for approval of their budgets. Most of them know better than to challenge the folks who control their lifelines.
As to the second point, yes, the county executive would be powerful. But he or she would have to answer to a council with veto power. Again, no one can veto today's commission.
Finally, we wonder why anyone would minimize the importance of administering a budget of more than a half a billion dollars. As executives, each commissioner today has responsibilities over certain county departments. That means none of them looks at the county as a whole. A county council would solve budget problems with their eyes on the entire puzzle, not just on their own little pieces.
Most people understand the need for a representative and balanced government. It's self-evident. Most likely, that is why few people have come to hearings to argue in favor of the change. But the vocal nay-sayers shouldn't carry the day.
County commissioners have one month left until they decide whether to put the proposed change on the ballot. They need to let county residents decide this matter once and for all.