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Michelle Tessier/Deseret News

UTOPIA mayors searching for options to gain public's input

By Benjamin Wood | Posted - Aug. 24, 2014 at 9:22 a.m.

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Elections officials have put the brakes on a proposal to have voters weigh in on a controversial Internet utility fee during November's election, but the mayors of six UTOPIA cities say they still intend to seek public input.

Earlier this month, the mayors of Layton, West Valley, Tremonton, Perry, Brigham City and Midvale announced their intention to push for a non-binding ballot question asking residents whether they approve of a roughly $20 monthly utility fee to maintain and complete the embattled UTOPIA fiber-optic network.

But state and county elections officials have reviewed the law and have determined that such a ballot question is not allowed.

"As much as it's nice to get citizen input and have citizens weigh in, the way the current code is doesn’t allow for it," Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said.

Swensen said the issue is not whether the question is binding or non-binding, but rather that ballot questions must either be specifically approved or deal with particular uses listed in statute, such as bonding.

"There’s certain things that are allowed by statute under state law, and opinion questions are not unless they are approved by the Legislature," she said.

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency was created more than a decade ago by a consortium of 11 cities. It was envisioned as a means for providing ubiquitous access to high-speed data service.

But the network has been plagued by operating deficits and stalled construction, resulting in an incomplete build-out that cities continue to pay for through debt obligations.

We're just looking at all the options and trying to figure out what's best, what will work and what will get the best participation under the circumstances. We said we're going to take it to the people, and we will.

–Ron Bigelow, West Valley mayor

Macquarie Capitol Group, an Australia-based investment firm, has offered to complete construction and assume management of the network for 30 years in exchange for a universal fee levied against all residents.

Five cities — Centerville, Lindon, Murray, Orem and Payson — have rejected Macquarie's proposal, and while city councils in the remaining six cities voted to move forward, the respective mayors have called for greater public input to settle lingering division.

"We’re just looking at all the options and trying to figure out what’s best, what will work and what will get the best participation under the circumstances," West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow said. "We said we’re going to take it to the people, and we will."

Bigelow said it is likely the cities will use some form of mail-in ballot, though he added that they are working "literally every day" to explore options and determine the best way to proceed.

There are concerns related to sponsoring a poll that need to be addressed, he said, such as the potential to create confusion if the utility fee ballot is distributed too close to November's election or a decline in voter participation.

"If we get a very low turnout, it really doesn’t tell us anything," Bigelow said. "We need to have participation, so we’re going to work very aggressively at getting our citizens to participate."

Bigelow said that beyond the structure of how voters are polled, and independent of whether they accept or reject the Macquarie proposal, the 11 cities involved with UTOPIA continue to have pressing issues to address regarding the network.

"This will answer part of the problem, but not all of it," he said.

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