Guest Editorial, March 26-29, 2011
In 1995 the Legislature passed a bill allowing a county to form planning districts with separate planning commissions. Summit County went ahead and formed the two districts with which we are familiar. Meanwhile, because of disputes over annexations along the Wasatch Front, other bills were passed, creating and tinkering with the concept of planning entities called townships. Poor drafting and endless squabbles caused confusion until, in the second special session of 1997, Mel Brown, who then represented a Midvale legislative district, sponsored a bill that clearly amended Utah Code 17-27-200.5 (2)(e)(ii) to read:
(ii) Each planning district established under Chapter 225, Laws of Utah 1995, and each township planning district established under Chapter 389, Laws of Utah 1997, shall continue in existence as a township, subject to the provisions of this part.
Thus, as of the effective date of this statute, Summit County’s two planning districts became townships. No action by the county to create that status was required. The Utah Supreme Court said so in Gillmor v. Summit County.
The county never followed up on the Legislature’s mandate. It never treated its planning districts as townships and has been out of compliance with the law for almost 14 years. As recently noted, residents of cities that have their own planning commissions may not serve on township planning commissions. For all this time, though, they have and have arguably been denying due process to those who appeared before them.
In August of 2010, while researching a different issue, I noticed this discrepancy and, as a concerned citizen, made the County Attorney aware of it. The County Attorney’s office and its outside counsel apparently determined that I was right, but nothing was said publicly until Representative Brown sponsored HB 434, extending from, presumably, 1998 to 2012 the deadline for certain township planning commission elections.
HB 434 has sent our County Council into a tizzy, because they don’t want to give up even a tiny fragment of the power they enjoy to tell the County Manager whom to appoint to the planning commissions. To be sure, under the Plan of Government Resolution they favored, they don’t lawfully have that power, but they may "advise and consent" to the manager’s appointments and it’s just so much more efficient to advise him in advance as to which of their cronies they’ll give their consent.
The council, like the bandits in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," say they don’t need no stinking elections. Indeed, HB 434 provides for electing a minimum of three out of seven planning commissioners per township. The council could provide for election of all seven. That would cure one of its stated objections to elections, namely the "unfairness" of having some commissioners stand for election and some appointed.
As to the objection made in this paper’s editorial, that elections are full of political wrangling, contentious, and expensive, I say not necessarily. We elect a whole slew of officials every election year to school boards, sewer boards, cemetery and other special service boards, and so on. One reason those elections are more civil is that they are non-partisan. Candidates for such district offices don’t need the approval of a political party to run. It would seem that’s the case for township planning commissioners as well, thus producing a democratic but not necessarily Democratic result.
If our County Council could overcome the problem it has with HB 434 and make all planning commission seats elective offices, it would go a long way toward ending the allegations of cronyism and gross unfairness that have risen time and again over the past decades and perhaps even cut down on the amount of ensuing litigation.
Bruce Margolius is a lawyer who lives in Kamas