ST. GEORGE – As the general election nears, so does the election for Washington County Commissioner.
Alan Gardner is the current commissioner, and has held the position for nearly 16 years. He is seeking re-election, touting public lands and improvements made to the county as central themes of his campaign.
Challenging the incumbent is businessman Chris White, who has said Gardner is too focused on public lands issues that don’t directly affect the county. He also advocates a more inclusive county government.
While there are issues the two candidates agree on – such as the implementation of the Vision Dixie plan throughout the county, as well as reserving final judgment on the matter of the Lake Powell Pipeline until a pending study is completed in two years – they diverge widely in others.
“I have an extensive background in public lands,” Gardner said, and related it was originally issues surrounding the desert tortoise that prompted him to run for the county commission.
Gardner said public lands agencies at the local level used to be easy to work with, but that has changed over the years due to the federal government’s increasing micromanagement of the environment and giving into the environmental activism.
“There needs to be more local control,” he said. According to Gardner’s campaign platform, he is in favor of the responsible development of natural resources and clean energies. However, he balks at attempts to cut off access to public lands and resources that could be developed and made economically viable.
White, however, does not believe the commissioner should become involved in public lands issues outside of the county. “Washington County needs its commissioner back,” he said.
Washington County is currently a part of a multi-party lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior over a 20-year ban on Uranium mining in the Arizona Strip, something White said the county had no business being a part of. He also criticized Gardner’s paying attention to issues surrounding natural resource extraction on the Uinta Basin, another region outside of the county.
“Let others deal with land issues,” White said, and added that Gardner’s focusing on public lands so much was neglecting the needs of the county, was not duly representing the people who elected him.
“The most valuable natural resource in Washington County is the people,” White said.
Gardner said he focused on public lands because they could affect the county. Uranium mining could have created an estimated 1,100 jobs in the region, and part of the money gained from mining and related industries could have helped bolster the county’s economy.
As for the attention given the Uinta Basin, he said a part of the royalties paid to state were distributed among the state’s 29 counties. “Washington County has been a beneficiary of these funds,” he said.
Water District Board and the Lake Powell Pipeline
White said he was not against the Lake Powell Pipeline, but what it represented – an unelected board of individuals with the power to tax and fine the people.
Per Utah statute, members of the board of the Washington County Water Conservancy District are appointed to office, not elected. If people want direct elections, Gardner said, they would have to change state law first.
Another objection White has to the water district board is two mayors – City of St. George Mayor Dan McArthur and Hurricane Mayor Thomas Hirschi – currently serve on it. As they are elected officials, White said the commission saw their appointments as a way to answer to public calls for the direct elections.
“By putting mayors on the board, you’re making it political,” White said. The mayors would have the welfare of their own cities in mind, and not necessarily the county as a whole, he said.
Having mayors on the board is not a political issue, Gardner said. “The board is set up specifically so the county has water,” and nothing else, he said. The idea the mayors would place the interests of their cities over that of the county was one he did not agree with either.
“The board members are widely dispersed,” he said, and added they represented various interests from throughout the county.
Concerning the Lake Powell Pipeline, Gardner said, “There is tons of misinformation out there.”
Current projections from the WCWCD estimate that the county may run out of water sometime between the 2020s and 2030s, so an alternative water source will be needed by that time, Gardner said.
White said the county needs to involve the public more when it comes to the pipeline. One suggestion is putting the pipeline up for a vote. Gardner is not opposed to the idea, but said it should wait until a current study being conducted on the pipeline is completed. That study won’t be completed for another two years.
Making sure the county has water is important, White said. “If the perception is out there (that the county is running out of water), it will hurt the community,” he said.
Whatever the final fate of the pipeline may be, White also said measures to better conserve water should be applied. Currently there is no incentive to conserve water because the WCWCD uses money from impact fees to help keep rates artificially low, he said
“Allow citizens and municipalities to pay for the water they use,” White said on his website. As commissioner, he would see water conservation rewarded monetarily, as well as provide more education to the public so they could vote over the matter.
“We have the capacity to make a quality decision,” White said.
The general question asked of any candidate – why should the people vote for you?
Aside from his work involving public lands, Gardner pointed to his record as county commissioner. During this time the county has “greatly expanded the library system,” resulting in two remodeled libraries and five new ones. “It’s been a big improvement to the county,” he said.
Gardner was also involved in the building of the new senior center in St. George, and the remodeling of preexisting centers in Enterprise and Hurricane.
When the economic recession began in 2008, he said Washington County’s budget was hit with a loss in sales tax revenue. “The county gets its money in two ways,” he said, “through property tax and sales tax.” Rather than hike property taxes, Gardner said the commission had to lay off workers, postpone raises, and make sure the county stayed within its budget. “We balanced the budget without raising taxes,” he said. “We’re proud of that.”
If elected, White said he would promote a more inclusive county government and increased citizen involvement. “The people aren’t involved because they’re told not to be involved,” he said.
“A small percentage of (commission) meetings are broadcast via television after the decisions have been made,” he said on his website. He would have county commission meetings streamed live online. The internet and social media would also be utilized to allow better access to public officials and county processes.
White also said he would like to move some services the county oversees into the private sector. “Allow qualified and trained private businesses to perform jobs throughout the county … and lessen the county load,” he said.
An area where private business could make up for where the county failed, White said, is animal control. The county currently does not offer that service.
As a part of the “citizen-centered government” White hopes to foster, he said he would also inject more variety into county government by not allowing the same batch of people to have positions on multiple boards. Instead, he would appoint individuals who were better trained and educated in relation to the boards they would serve on.
“We have a wonderful community,” and it deserves to be properly represented, he said.
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