City and County Officials Question Local Control As Legislative Session Nears Its Close
The Utah State Legislative Session comes to an end Friday and some local officials have raised concerns about the legislature’s willingness to take authority away from Utah cities, towns, and counties.
In only 45 days, the Utah Legislature conducts the business of the state each year. Hundreds of bills are considered each session, causing a whirlwind of committee hearings, votes, amendments, and more votes before it’s all over.
Among the mad dash to the finish line, there is a feeling by some local government officials that their authority to self govern was being challenged by certain bills in the legislature this year.
Just one year ago, a last-minute amendment to a bill allowed the town of Hideout to annex land in Summit County without the county’s consent.
Bills pertaining to electronic billboards, accessory dwellings, and building requirements either were or are currently being considered by the legislature this session. Each of them, at least in their original form, would take away some measure of local authority on these issues.
Park City Manager Matt Dias even characterized Utah cities and towns as being “under attack” by the legislature this session at a city council meeting last month.
“There is a feeling at the legislature, I think, that cities and towns authority need only go so far and that sometimes,” Dias said. “the legislators feel that they know what’s best for us. Right, wrong, or indifferent, a lot of that focus this year has been on pre-empting a local city or town’s ability to control its own destiny, to allow residents to come together with their elected officials and create the land management code under which they live, create the rules, and create the regulations.”
Summit County Councilor Glenn Wright told KPCW he agrees with Dias’ take on the legislature, but added that this seems to be the case every year he’s been part of keeping tabs on the process at the county level.
“That’s pretty much an every year occurrence,” said Wright. “Yes, I do share Matt’s concern there. The legislature likes to micromanage cities and counties. I’m a member of UAC, the Utah Association of Counties, probably one of the more liberal and few democrats on the board, but one thing we all have in common is that the legislature is always out to get us.”
Wright added that things almost always look pretty grim for local governments early in the session, but said the most threatening bills usually get weeded out during the committee process, are amended until they are palatable to legislators, or are held on the floors of the house and senate and never given a vote.
For example, the bill aimed at preventing municipalities from banning electronic billboards failed in the senate. Another bill with changes to accessory dwellings like mother-in-law apartments was amended to allow cities and towns the ability to punish individuals who use their units as illegal short-term rentals before getting passed this week. The latter was a bill Park City was paying particularly close attention to.
KPCW reached out to Representative Brian King, who is the House Minority Leader and represents a portion of Summit County in the Legislature, but he did not immediately return the request.
House Bill 98, which would allow builders to use third-party building inspectors and prevent municipalities or counties from regulating certain building design elements, was passed late Thursday.
Wright said at face value, these changes might seem trivial, but pointed out that in a worst-case scenario, not having the authority to regulate design elements or have a say in building inspections could have tragic consequences.
“As an example of something that would be disastrous, say a builder wanted to put vinyl siding on a house [in a place where there is fire danger], that is asking for that house to go up in flames in the next wildfire,” he said. “All in all, it’s a pretty scary bill and we’re hoping that it will die a death in the Senate.”
The 2021 Utah Legislative Session ends on Friday.