SMITHFIELD Cache County's second-largest city may adopt a new form of government.
The City Council in June created a committee to study whether Smithfield should retain the current system, with a six-member council that hires a manager to oversee the city's day-to-day operation, or switch to another system, most likely the so-called "strong-mayor" system. Under the strong-mayor system, the mayor would oversee the city's daily operations but would not be a voting member of the council, although he could veto legislation.
Jeff Gittins, a dairy farmer spearheading the movement to change the city's government, said Smithfield's city manager has a great deal of authority but is not directly answerable to the voters. Although Gittins said he has nothing against City Manager Jim Gass, he pointed out Gass lives in North Logan not Smithfield.
"What accountability does the city manager have to the citizens when he doesn't even live here in the city and doesn't have to live with the
results of the decisions he makes and really isn't directly accountable to the people?" Gittins asked. "It's just a basic, inherent right that people should have the right to vote for their chief executive officer."
Mayor Chad Downs said the council created the committee because other residents have similar concerns and because a law enacted in the last legislative session made it more difficult for cities to adopt the city-manager system of government. The law, sponsored by state Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights, enables cities with a city-manager system to retain their form of government but prohibits other cities from adopting the city-manager system without a public vote.
Walker said one of the reasons for the law was that residents in a couple of Utah cities didn't realize the city manager, not the mayor, actually ran the city. She also said some cities were using the city-manager style of government to strip the mayor of powers.
Gittins, who served on the City Council from 1998 to 2003, sued Smithfield in 2006 on the grounds the city didn't follow proper procedures when it rezoned land next to his dairy. Although he lost in 1st District Court, he has appealed the case to the Utah Supreme Court.
Gittins said his campaign to change the government isn't related to his lawsuit. But he said the way Smithfield handled the rezoning underlines the problems in city government.
The city manager is also Smithfield's engineer, building inspector, planner, budget officer, purchasing agent and director of the redevelopment agency. Gittins said the city manager controls virtually everything in the town of 9,181 from who gets building permits to what information is presented to the City Council and how it is presented.
Although Gittins is the most vocal of those calling for a change in government, other people have similar concerns, Mayor Downs said.
At a recent City Council meeting when about 30 people concerned about the form of government attended, Gass said he'd be in a soup line if the city manager's position is eliminated. But he said the comment was meant tongue-in-cheek.
No matter what form of government the city has, he said, someone will have to perform his various duties.
"I don't think I'm going to be left unemployed regardless of the outcome of the study by the committee," he said.
Although the city manager has many duties, Gass said the City Council ultimately runs the city.
Councilman Dennis Watkins, who is on the committee, sees some potential drawbacks to the strong-mayor system.
Under the current system, the council can fire the city manager anytime, Watkins said. But under the strong-mayor system, he said, it would be hard to remove the mayor between elections.
Watkins also pointed out the city would have to come up with more money or take money from somewhere else to pay a strong mayor.
"Financially, it's a challenge for our city to have a full-time mayor," he said.