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A county manager would have widespread power

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

A ‘yea’ vote in November to change the form of government in Summit County would ultimately place all executive powers in the county in the hands of a hired manager.

That is according to a recommendation from a seven-member study committee that concludes that voters should support changing the current three-member Summit County Commission to a five-member council with an executive manager.

Summit County Proposition 1 pits the West Side against its more rural counterparts in eastern Summit County as voters prepare to go to the polls Nov. 7, and perhaps no aspect of the controversial ballot measure is more divisive than the notion of hiring a manager to oversee county employees.

Critics of the plan also say it’s distasteful to give someone not elected by voters a six-figure salary and the power to partly supervise elected officials and fire department heads.

Except for the county council, the manager would also have the final say on the government’s nearly $45 million budget, complained Woodland resident Mike Marty, a spokesman for the group Less is Best, which is encouraging people to oppose Proposition 1.

"It’s one layer of government more that you don’t have access to," Marty said.

Plans to switch to the council/manager form of government include allowing the manager say in who serves on the county’s two planning commissions, Marty said.

"If there are battles going on between the council and the manager, the manager isn’t going to be there very long," countered Steve Dougherty, a Pinebrook resident who served on the committee that recommended the county hire a manager

Though the manager will vet applicants, Dougherty insists county councilors would make the final decisions on board appointments.

"Essentially, it will work out," he said. "[The manager] gets to fill those vacancies as they arrive."

Marty says if the three part-time county commissioners — who receive salary and benefits packages worth more than $70,000 are overworked, they should each hire assistants.

"That doesn’t solve the problem," said Dougherty. "We won’t have a separation of legislative and executive powers."

The County Commission functions now as the executive and legislative branches of government, Dougherty said, adding that a needed separation of powers requires the hiring of a manager.

Wasatch County embraced change

Mike Davis, the manager of neighboring Wasatch County, insists that since he was hired in 2003 the government has run more smoothly.

"Even those who opposed it say we’re functioning better," Davis said.

"The improvement is that you have a single focal point that’s here all the time."

Government is rarely able to communicate effectively with its constituents, he said, adding, "My office door is always open."

The county’s budget is also in "better shape" since he began presenting the numbers to the council three years ago, Davis said.

About six years ago, voters in Wasatch County moved to replace their three-member county commission with a seven-member council and executive manager.

"The manager is at the beck and call of the council," Davis said. "If four of them feel they don’t like me, I’m fired."

But he has lots of power, Davis concedes.

"I am making most of the decisions, administratively with very little influence from the council," Davis said.

State law requires councilors stay out of decisions made by Davis, he said, adding, "I try to involve them."

Because voters can’t elect the manager, however, the official is not accountable to the public, Marty said.

"You’re going to have to pick somebody you can trust," Davis countered. "I feel a tremendous responsibility."

Meanwhile, according to the Proposition 1 plan, the manager would also "direct the prosecution, defense, and settlement of all lawsuits and other actions to which Summit County is a party."

The manager would be required to have at least a four-year degree in public administration or finance and five years of experience working as a city or county administrator, the plan states.

Marty claims an individual with such qualifications could command an annual salary of $200,000.

Hilary Smith, the manager of Pitkin County, Colo., which is home to Aspen, earns $130,000 per year.

"I look at the resources and I look at how we can allocate those resources in a more efficient way," Smith said, when asked to describe her job. "Some dollars that are spent just really don’t need to be spent."

Coordinating with elected officials like the sheriff, clerk and assessor has allowed her to trim budgets and prevent politicians from isolating themselves from the public, Smith added.

According to Dougherty, instead of debating facts, members of Less is Best have spread misinformation to scare voters into opposing the plan.

"I don’t think I would call it dirty," he said. "I think desperate."

With nearly 22,000 residents in the unincorporated Snyderville Basin, the government perhaps hasn’t efficiently provided services to this growing group of people, Dougherty said.

"There is no city," he said, adding that his neighbors in Park City, Kamas and Coalville, depend on the municipalities for most of their services.

Tax-paying citizens in Snyderville deserve a county manager who could help ensure services Summit County provides its constituents, are on par with those received by residents of Oakley, Henefer and Francis, Dougherty said.

The councilors pay could likely be less than the current county commissioners’ salaries to help offset the cost to fund the manager position.

"It won’t require a tax increase," Dougherty promised.


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