The Park Record editorial, January 30-February 2, 2010
A Summit County Council trial balloon was shot down with a bazooka this week and the council members are wisely acknowledging that they got the message.
A proposal to combine four county-level elected offices into two positions drew a vocal crowd to the council’s regular meeting on Wednesday in Coalville. Critics of the idea, which would reduce the number of elected department heads from seven to five, said it would lessen public input at the county level and would weaken the existing system of checks and balances. Proponents suggested combining departments would save money and increase efficiency.
Neither side, however, had hard facts to back up its arguments. That is because the proposal lacked adequate data (pro and con) and failed to provide enough time for public debate before it was due for a council vote.
Nevertheless, rethinking the county department structure has merit.
At issue was a plan to combine the posts of treasurer and clerk and of assessor and recorder. Since the incumbent treasurer and incumbent assessor, both longtime office holders, were considering retiring, and the window for filing for county elections is coming up in March, the new county manager and council apparently thought it made sense to consider combining the jobs.
In a more corporate and less political environment, it would have. But in Summit County, the elected department posts are perhaps the last bastion of power held by residents from the East Side. With four of the five council seats now held by West Siders, the elected department head posts are even more important to the largely rural residents of North and South Summit. Six of the seven are currently held by East Siders.
The protest that resonated in Coalville this week was based as much on economics as political power. County government has long been a major employer for residents of Henefer, Coalville, Kamas, Oakley and the smaller communities in between. And that economic base has been eroding first the jail then the courts moved to the West Side, and now some may fear the whole county seat will shift. Those concerns must be addressed if any proposal to consolidate elected offices is to succeed.
A bigger question that should also be raised is whether the county is better served by elected or appointed department heads. That issue should be considered on a case-by-case basis. For instance, government attorneys are often elected rather than appointed so that they can offer independent counsel without fear of reprisal. In that way it mimics the federal system of checks and balances.
But when it comes to a treasurer or a recorder, is the county better served by an election or by a professional hiring process? To run for office, a candidate only needs to show proof of residency and, in a few instances, minimal professional certification. But if the job is an appointed one, the council impose higher standards related to education and experience.
The County Council may have stumbled in presenting this proposal on such a short timeline, but it is onto a worthy idea, one it should continue to pursue over the coming months.
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