This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Officials from Utah's populous, urbanized counties did something Wednesday they haven't really done before: They got together to talk about common issues confronting them, primarily criminal justice reform.
This inaugural meeting of county officials from the Wasatch Front and Washington County carried enough political heft that the state's two top executives spent an hour with the group.
"It's rare that the governor and lieutenant governor are together," Gov. Gary Herbert said as he sat alongside Lt. Gov Spencer Cox in the session at the Salt Lake County Government Center. "We get 15 requests a day [for appearances], so we usually divide and conquer. But we thought this was important, so we're here together."
Both are former county commissioners, Herbert in Utah County, Cox in Sanpete.
The idea for the meeting originated partly from the ire of Democrats on the Salt Lake County Council after a Utah Association of Counties (UAC) subcommittee gave an award to San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman after he was convicted of leading an illegal off-highway vehicle drive into Recapture Canyon, a federal roadless area.
From ensuing conversations about that, Republican Aimee Winder Newton turned discontent over UAC's emphasis on public-lands positions important to rural counties but often opposed by the urban counties into a meeting where the heavily populated counties could address issues more important to them.
For this initial gathering, complying with the criminal justice initiative passed last year by the Legislature was the major concern of all of the county participants.
County officials feel the initiative's reduction of drug-possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, along with the goal of providing more treatment and supervision of people in the system, is noble. But it puts a huge burden on local governments expected to provide those services and supervision without accompanying financial help from the state.
Herbert acknowledged the problem, but said he wasn't sure how to resolve it until the Legislature approves some sort of Medicaid expansion. Who knows when that will happen, he added.
"You want me to show you my scars," he quipped, referring to his repeated, but unsuccessful efforts to get legislative approval of a scaled-back Medicaid expansion.
Ron Gordon, executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said the reform initiative and Medicaid expansion were supposed to pass in tandem, but didn't.
"Anything else means piecemealing it year after year," he added, which is where things will stand until the Legislature finds a way to fund substance-abuse and mental-health treatment programs needed by most of the people who go in and out of jail on a regular basis at a significant cost to taxpayers.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R- Kearns, chairman of the budget committee overseeing criminal justice reforms, gave county officials a bit of hope that lawmakers could pass a bill this session.
"I'm fairly encouraged," he said, with the caveat, "I didn't win the Powerball, so I don't know how much you should trust that."
The session was fruitful enough that the county officials decided to establish an "Urban County Caucus." Newton was elected its chairwoman and charged with drafting a charter and suggesting future priorities.