Coin flip for City Council

The Blanding City Council appointed a new council member and hired a new attorney as part of their first meeting of 2022. 

For the second year in a row, an open seat on the Blanding City Council was ultimately decided by a game of chance with Leonard Gasser chosen to fill a two-year seat. 

After winning an unopposed election in November, Blanding’s new Mayor Logan Monson was sworn into office on January 3. Cheryl Bowers and Erik Grover were also sworn in for four-year terms, while Kellen Nielson was sworn in for a two-year term.

For Monson to become Blanding’s next mayor, he had to vacate his seat on the Blanding City Council. This left a two-year term to be filled by the vote of the remaining members of the council.

The seat ultimately went to Leonard Gasser, who has more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement and spent two years on the planning commission before being appointed to the City Council.

Gasser was joined by Paul Murdock as one of two applicants for the open seat. Murdock was one of four candidates in the 2021 municipal elections for the four-year terms on the council. Murdock received 12 percent of the vote in the election, while Bowers and Grover received 36 percent and 28 percent respectively. Gasser was not a candidate for election.

The council separately interviewed both candidates. When asked what they thought was the biggest challenge facing the city, Gasser cited the growing population and ensuing issues, stating, “jobs and housing would be my concern.” 

Murdock expressed concern for the lack of Native American political representation in the town, saying, “We have a Native American population that isn’t necessarily represented in this room.” 

After deliberating for several minutes and offering praise to both candidates, the council vote concluded in a tie. Council members Nielson and KD Perkins voted for Murdock while Grover and Bowers voted for Gasser.

The council faced a similar challenge in January 2021, when Nielson and applicant Shawn Begay were tied after two rounds of voting. According to state law, the open seat was filled by a game of chance, with Nielson winning the coin toss.

The time, the council flipped a coin following the tie and after landing on heads, Gasser was appointed to the seat.

At their January 11 meeting, the council also selected two new city attorneys following the resignation of the previous city attorney Kendall Laws.

The primary role of a city attorney is to provide legal counsel to the city. In some places, city attorneys also function as prosecutors for low-level criminal activity regarding city ordinances. In Blanding, the city attorney provides both legal counsel and criminal prosecution. 

After receiving proposals from two law firms, the council voted to award the legal counsel duties to one firm and the criminal prosecution duties to another.

The previous attorney, Kendall Laws, submitted his resignation at the end of November, with his final day being at the end of 2021. 

Laws cited three reasons for his resignation, including the city council decision to not increase his monthly salary, the fact that prospective clients are willing to pay more in less time, and his personal best interest.

Laws’ contract was $19,750 a year, including $1,750 for training and up to 240 hours of annual labor at a rate of $75 an hour. Any hours worked over 240 were billed at $125 an hour.

In a city staff report, the city says that from July to December 2021, Laws provided 81 hours of labor. Assuming Laws worked the same amount of hours in the second half of the fiscal year, the hourly fee would be closer to $111. 

The staff report notes that Laws’s role as the San Juan County attorney has been a conflict of interest at times, with the city having to hire outside counsel at a rate of $250 per hour in those instances.

The staff report also mentioned that other cities in the state report paying between $150 and $200 an hour before additional fees.

The city received two proposals for attorney services from firms in northern Utah. One proposal from Blaisdale, Church & Johnson listed a $150 an hour fee. 

The other, from Aaron Nielson Law, was $100 an hour, with an additional fee of $350 per trip to Blanding and $400 for each day spent in San Juan County.

The 240 hours of annual work would cost the city $36,000 with Blaisdale, Church & Johnson. The annual rate for Aaron Nielson Law is $25,750, plus $750 for every trip made to Blanding.

Staff estimates that hiring both firms and splitting duties would cost $31,200, plus the additional travel fees for Aaron Nielson Law.

With virtual hearings becoming common during COVID-19, the city could theoretically avoid travel fees. City Manager David Johnson claimed that Seventh District Justice Court Judge Lyon Hazelton recently expressed concern for in-person court representation, citing that while
court proceedings can be held virtually, there are times that the technology may not work. In those cases, Hazelton said it is imperative that the attorney be there in person. 

Bowers made a motion to hire Blaisdell, Church, & Johnson for the civil services portion of the position, and hire Aaron Nielson Law for duties related to criminal prosecution.

The resolution ordered city staff to negotiate contracts with both law firms based upon the rates each has proposed. Kellen Nielson seconded the motion but expressed concern over the travel reimbursement costs that would incur from Aaron Nielson Law, pointing out that just one day a month would cost the city $9,000 a year. 

Before the motion was made, Councilwoman Perkins said, “This needs to be on record that this is a lot more expensive than what we were getting,” referring to the contract with Kendall Laws. 

Council asked David Johnson if it was possible to negotiate lower rates with the law firms. Johnson said it would require a separate motion.

Bowers inquired if there were any local options. Johnson said he reached out to local attorneys and none were interested. One cited the low hourly pay rates the council has set for the position as a reason. 

At the meeting, the council also heard from Bret Hosler, head of community development, who presented an amended ordinance concerning Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), which are secondary housing units on a single-family residential lot.

In 2021, the Utah State Legislature passed a bill primarily regarding internal ADUs. The bill allows cities to prohibit no more than 25 percent of ADUs on residential lots. For many cities, this loosens up laws and allows for more ADU permits. 

Johnson explained that Blanding City ordinances already allow for most ADUs and these amendments concern “minor changes of clarity and cleanup.”

Mayor Monson expressed concern over making final decisions at this time, stating, “I anticipate ADUs being brought up again in the legislative session this year.”

Hosler agreed, saying he too “anticipate[s] land use will continue to be a hot topic for the next several years.” 

The council voted on the amendments and the ordinance passed unanimously. 

The City of Blanding will likely be a recipient of a Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development. The grant will provide development funds to address affordable housing, anti-poverty programs, and general infrastructure

A block grant is different than a regular grant, with less oversight and recipients of the grant have more freedom in the spending of the grant money. The expectation is the money will be spent on a project that will primarily impact low- and moderate-income households. 

The Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments will receive approximately $707,000 from the block grant, with approximately $433,000 going to cities in the region. 

A January 6 public hearing discussed the possible uses of the grant funds. City Recreation Manager David Palmer presented findings from the hearing to the city council. Palmer reports that local residents are primarily interested in a pickleball court. 

At this point, no decision will be made until the grant money is secured. City officials said local input is valuable in deciding how to best spend this money.

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