AMERICAN FORK — Utah County's population, which currently rests at about 620,000, is quickly approaching a significant tipping point.
When Utah's second-most populous county hits 700,000, it'll become the state's second county of the 1st class — on par with Salt Lake County under state code. And in the next 25 to 30 years, projections predict Utah County's population will explode to an estimated 1.6 million.
"It's going to be a whole different ballgame in many different ways," said Rex Facer, associate professor at Brigham Young University's Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics.
As part of Utah's tech hub, Silicon Slopes, Utah County's rapid growth is driving a wonky yet important discussion about the county's future and how it will be governed for decades to come — and it's a conversation that could bring Utah its next mayor-council form of county government.
On Thursday, the Utah County Good Governance Board — tasked with studying a potential form of government change — agreed to recommend the county move to a full-time mayor and seven-member part-time council. The mayor, with council consent, would hire a chief administrative officer to manage the county day to day.
The board will report its findings and recommendations at the June 4 county commission meeting.
Voters would have to approve any change in the form of government, and the advisory board hopes to get the issue on the November ballot. If it passes, elections for the new offices would be held in 2020, said Facer, the board's vice chairman.
At an earlier meeting of the group, several political heavyweights weighed in, including Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who threw his support behind changing from a three-member commission to a mayor-council form of government similar to Salt Lake County.
"As you look for the best possible answer, I would search for what gives you the highest amount of accountability," Curtis told the advisory board by phone May 16. "In my opinion, the county has had very little accountability for elected officials, and that's not to fault the elected officials. It's more a fault of the system."
Curtis said during his experience as mayor of Provo, the three-member commission lacked such "accountability" because each commissioner would "point to the other as the reason they couldn't do anything." A city manager-council form has its own pros and cons, he said, but ultimately an appointed city manager would be "nearly impossible" to replace because it requires a consensus from the council.
So, Curtis said he'd "really lean heavily" on a mayor-council form of government because it would provide "far more accountability" for voters.
Others who attended included state Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, and Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi. Brammer said he favors an appointed manager to avoid political bias. Christofferson said he'd prefer an elected mayor who will be more accountable to voters.
Ultimately, the general consensus of the advisory board — made up of faculty from Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University, as well as state senators, representatives, local mayors and others — was that Utah County's governance needs to change.
Whether a proposed form of government change goes to the ballot will be up to the Utah County Commission. Or a petition that has been circulating since February could force it to the November ballot.
Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, a longtime supporter of a change of Utah County's governance, said recently he was "grateful" to see the discussion advance, and he looks forward to seeing the issue come before the commission next month.
"I believe for a county of our size there's too much consolidated power in a three-member commission," Ivie said. "It's imperative as our county continues to grow … that we have a government that is reflective of the people that represents our various interests and is properly balanced."
Ivie said he was the first person to sign the petition when it began circulating in January — and now with the recent election of Tanner Ainge to the commission, he believes there is support on the commission to move the conversation forward.
Backers of the petition to reform Utah County's government to a mayor-council form estimate that change could cost the county an additional $33,000 or so on top of the county's current commission costs.
Last year, the county commission budget totaled more than $687,000, according to the Utah Public Finance website. Salaries for the three full-time commissioners equal $119,000 each, plus benefits.
Ivie said a mayor-council government may cost more overall but noted a part-time council would take in a salary of much less individually (perhaps $15,000 to $25,000 each), and would ultimately cost less per representative.6 comments on this story
"Look, how do you put a price tag on that, to have someone advocating for your neighborhood?" Ivie said.
Curtis, asked about the cost, acknowledged a mayor-council government may be overall more expensive, but urged the advisory board not to "let money drive this."
"I would make a decision based on what truly would be the best governance to the county," the congressman said.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that reforming Utah County's government could cost an additional $300,000. The actual estimate is $33,000.