Recently there has been some discussion about concerns regarding Cedar Hills’ membership with the Utah League of Cities and Towns (ULCT). After reading through the discussion, I wanted to offer another perspective on ULCT, how I believe maintaining our membership benefits our city, and how we can and should address any concerns that may come up.
ULCT was organized in 1907 and represents Utah municipalities at the state and federal level. Their board and committee memberships are made up entirely of elected officials and staff throughout the state. They provide training and legal advice to cities, while also acting as a lobbyist for cities and towns with the state legislature. Every year, the Legislature discusses many bills that have the potential to impact municipalities. I believe in this last legislative session there was around 250 new bills being introduced. As you can imagine, it is very difficult for municipal elected officials and staff to stay involved every day of the legislative session to understand what is being presented and the impact those new laws can have on cities. ULCT makes staying involved much easier.
Before the legislative season even begins, ULCT staff meet with the ULCT Legislative Policy Committee (LPC) to discuss matters that are important to cities so that ULCT can represent the concerns of cities as they meet with state and federal officials. The LPC is likewise comprised of elected officials and city managers from cities throughout the state. Every city can have multiple representatives sit on the LPC. Members of the LPC and other ULCT committees are appointed by the ULCT Board, which also consists of elected officials, including Mayor Gygi. Once ULCT staff members receive their marching orders from the Board and from the LPC, they then advocate for municipalities as they meet with state representatives. ULCT does have a lot of influence, but that is because those who are setting the course are those who are elected by residents of each city to represent local government. The Board and the LPC care about local control and are concerned about state laws that can cause hardships on cities, especially small cities like Cedar Hills.
ULCT staff members are at the Hill every day advocating for cities. At the end of each day, ULCT sends out an email to city elected officials with a summary of what occurred and what is coming up so that we may make our voices heard if we have concerns. For example, a few years ago there was a bill being proposed that would require cities to waive the cost up to $1,000 for any GRAMA request that primarily benefits the public. The problem is that the law has a very broad definition as to what is considered benefitting the public – essentially anyone who requests a record with intent to publish a story is presumed to be acting to benefit the public. As many of you know, we have a few individuals who submit several GRAMA requests every year. We fill more GRAMA requests for this one group than many other cities do for their entire city. GRAMA laws are important and I agree that public records should be made available to the public so that the work of government officials and representatives is open and transparent. However, there are times when the law can be abused and can have a negative impact on small cities, such as Cedar Hills. We are a small city of 2500 households. Our records department consists of one person. One particular GRAMA request from this group consisted of over 6000 pages of records. While it cost thousands of dollars to fulfill this request, the requestor was only billed the compilation costs of approximately $700. The group demanded that we waive the fee under the “benefiting the public” clause because they were going to publish the records on their public website. Had this law passed, we would have been required to provide these records, and any other requests they made, at no cost to the requestor. There is no such thing as a “free” GRAMA request as there is always a cost for staff to provide the record. If the requestor no longer has to pay for these compilation costs, then those costs shift unfairly to the taxpayers of Cedar Hills. I have spoken with numerous residents who are frustrated that so many of their tax dollars are already being used to fulfill these requests. They have asked us, as their elected officials, to do what we can to have the one or two making the requests pay for them instead of shifting that burden upon the rest of the taxpayers who don’t support their agenda. In a city of our size, if we receive several large requests that we have to provide at no cost to the requestor, we would be forced to raise taxes or cut services to fund a larger records department. ULCT listened to our concerns and raised them with the legislature so that lawmakers would fully understand the impact a change to the GRAMA law could make on a municipal budget such as ours. This is just one example, but there are many others where ULCT staff has influenced the outcome of a bill that could hurt cities.
ULCT offers extensive training programs for elected officials and city staff. When I was first elected to the City Council in 2011, one of the very first emails I received was from ULCT inviting me to the annual Open and Public Meetings training given by David Church. David is an attorney with Blaisdell, Church, and Johnson, and is known throughout the state for being one of the most knowledgeable attorneys with regards to municipal law. This training and the book I received that was put together by ULCT is beneficial to all newly elected officials as understanding the laws with regards to government transparency is essential. This is only one of the many training sessions put together by ULCT each year. Every year I have attended their annual conference, which is a three-day event that includes information on legislative updates, breakout sessions on various topics that impact municipal governments small and large, and trainings specifically geared towards city managers, city planners, and city recorders. Our city manager, city planner, and city recorder attend additional ULCT changes throughout the year to understand the ever-changing laws to make sure that Cedar Hills is complying. Cities can and have been fined large sums of money for not complying with laws made at the state and federal level and ULCT trainings and publications help us stay ahead of those changes. To me, one of the most important things ULCT does is to put together a legislative update that lets each city know what laws have been made or updated that require cities to update laws or policies.
Through ULCT we have access to incredible resources. As I mentioned above, Blaisdell, Church and Johnson is known for being one of, if not the best legal resources for cities. Municipal law is their specialty and they know it well. As they are also the law firm that represents ULCT, we have access to their team through our membership. We have good legal counsel through Kirton McConkie, but there are times we have reached out to ULCT for additional insight. ULCT also has Jodi Hoffman on staff, who is one of the best land use attorneys in the state. We have had Jodi present to the Council to give us guidance on land use laws when discussing our commercial district. Meg Ryan is employed by ULCT and is known as an expert in the legalities of conditional uses. She recently provided a training course to our Planning Commission because we are in the process of updating our conditional use laws. It has been helpful to have these ULCT representatives present to us so that we can ask specific questions that relate to our city and our circumstances. Through our membership with ULCT, we have access to some of the most knowledgeable people in the state on laws that we must comply with in order to stay out of legal trouble.
In addition to the items mentioned above, ULCT has helped us in other ways. They provide sample ordinance and resolutions, which is helpful when we are required to update our laws when required by the state or federal governments. They advocate for cities when changes to taxes are being discussed as they understand that municipal taxes most directly impact residents of those cities. They serve as liaisons to various interest groups as they represent cities, and they facilitate communications between cities who share common issues and goals.
While I believe that ULCT has provided a benefit to our city, I recognize there are times that stances they have taken may not represent what is best for Cedar Hills. I’m sure it impossible for an organization that represents almost every city in the state to take a stance that represents every city every time. There has been some concern that ULCT advocated for Prop 1 and that in this way, ULCT doesn’t represent residents. I don’t think that is a fair statement to make. Some counties passed Prop 1, which means some residents throughout the state did support and want this tax. Advocating for this issue to be on the ballot allowed residents in each county to determine whether additional transportation funding was something they wanted to pay for. Just because the stance ULCT has taken on a few issues wasn’t supported by us doesn’t mean we should completely withdraw our membership. In fact, I think that it ends up hurting us in the long run as ULCT will continue to represent the majority of cities in the state, but Cedar Hills would no longer have a voice at the table.
So what can we do when ULCT is advocating for something our residents don’t support? I believe the answer to that is to get involved. As I stated earlier, ULCT takes its marching orders from the LPC and the Board. The LPC meets every month throughout the year, and meets every week during the legislative session. ULCT isn’t going advocate for something contrary to what the LPC wants. Right now, we only have one person serving on the LPC from Cedar Hills. We haven’t had the full representation we are entitled to, and that oversight falls on us as elected officials. We can assign our mayor, two council members, our city manager, our assistant city manager, and our city attorney to represent us as part of the LPC and we should do so. Instead of walking away and losing the benefits that come from being a member city, we should instead ask that our elected officials become more involved in the process and advocate for the residents of Cedar Hills. I have already told the Council that I am willing to be one of those assigned to the LPC if that is the direction the Council wants to take. I would also like to see another member of the Council join, as well as our city manager and city planner. In this way, I feel that we retain the benefits of ULCT and also have a greater influence on what ULCT advocates for on behalf of cities.