Update 5 p.m. Saturday Fox 13 reported that the state of Utah has quietly extricated itself from a 12-year-old legal war over control of homes and property in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
HILDALE — November’s municipal election in Hildale could potentially unseat members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from town government and comes during both a tumultuous time for the community, as well as one of hope.
Hildale’s municipal government has been made up of members of the FLDS church for decades. This will be the first election in the town’s history to have non-FLDS candidates, two of whom are not only ex-FLDS but also female, another first for the community.
Three council seats and the office of mayor are open for election this year, and ex-FLDS members who have returned to Hildale are vying for those positions, along with a candidate who moved to the area from northern Utah a few years ago.
Issues that candidates expressed as being important to the community range from an acute loss of business-related revenue and an underdeveloped tourism industry to a major shift in population that has led to undefined demographics and a lack of identity for an already struggling community.
While candidates differ on those issues, a gross shortage of paved roadways is one area nearly all candidates said was of critical importance.
Philip C. Barlow
Incumbent Mayor Philip Barlow told St. George News he is looking to the future and is intent on putting differences aside for the betterment of the community. He said that he doesn’t want the deeper issues of the community to be a part of the election because they have nothing to do with municipal functions.
“I want my message to be pretty simple,” Barlow said. “I’ve lived here all of my life. I love this town, and I just want to move forward.”
Barlow served as a city council member from 2006 until 2011, when he replaced the community’s mayor of 25 years, David Zitting, who resigned midterm. Barlow then won re-election and has remained in that position up to the present day.
Barlow said every city has issues they need to work on, and every city council is made up of members who have differences of opinion. However, he said, it’s their function to work through those differences, and Hildale is really no different.
Improving the quality of life and continuing to maintain all services is something he said he is focusing on, particularly with all of the changes that have occurred over the last several years. However, he said they are working with a lean budget as it is and are dealing with limited resources, an issue that may not change right away. Undeterred by this, he said, Barlow would like like to see increased business development in the region.
“We are going to address each issue as it comes and look at what the residents want,” Barlow said.
Donia Jessop is also running for mayor and told St. George News she wants to restore the sense of community. She has a unique insight into Hildale, she said, and understands the challenges that many of the residents face. Having raised 10 children herself and growing up in Hildale, she stressed that she is not there to judge anyone but will meet them where they are.
Jessop said she believes that many of the needs of the residents stem from a few key issues, including economic disparity and opportunities missed in the tourism industry.
Bringing revenue into the area will alleviate some of the problems, such as the need for roads, she said. This additional revenue could be gained through commercial and business development, as well as tourism and hospitality.
Implementing revenue-generating programs into the valley will take a lot of work but comes with enormous benefits, she said.
Another key issue, Jessop said, deals with the impression she has that a large sector of the residents lack a sense of “home,” adding that the importance of a sense of belonging to a community is of great concern not only on a municipal level but also a personal one.
Many residents have been either evicted or have moved from the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona – collectively known as “Short Creek.” This exodus came in the wake of evictions that began in 2014 after many FLDS members refused to cooperate with the United Effort Plan, or UEP, a land trust started in 1942 by the church but which was taken over by the state of Utah in 2005 after claims of mismanagement.
Many members were evicted as a result, while others left the area voluntarily.
(Read more about the United Effort Plan and eviction issues in the “Short Creek: then and now” section following candidate profiles)
Jessop said she doesn’t want anyone to move away, regardless of who they are or what they believe in.
“Many of these people no longer feel they can call Hildale their home, but it is their home,” she said.
Whether Jessop wins the mayoral race or not, what she wants most for Hildale is healing and for those living in the valley to look forward to the future. She knows she may have an uphill battle ahead but said she believes that many in the community are beginning to open up to changes.
“I knew I had to be up for the challenge and knew I had to do what’s needed because that’s what my dad instilled in me, and I have to give it everything I’ve got,” she said.
Hildale City Council candidates – four-year terms
Incumbent Carlos Jessop told St. George News that he wants to ensure all people are treated fairly, including those of the FLDS faith. He said that he is willing to work with the council regardless of who is involved because he wants what is best for the community.
“I have some concerns, but I know we’ll work our way through it,” he said. “I am willing and have been for more than nine years to serve, so it’s a personal commitment and it’s time I’m willing to give to this community.”
Carlos Jessop went on to say that the religious standing of another council member won’t affect his thinking or how he functions on the City Council if re-elected, but he also said that many decisions are based, in part at least, on his religious beliefs.
“Anyone who follows their religion is influenced by those beliefs; I don’t care who they are,” he said.
There are many issues that come before the council currently that relate to security and community development, and Carlos Jessop said they are left with hands tied in terms of what resources they have available to help the evicted families.
“I don’t know the numbers, but there are hundreds of homes evicted, homes that stand empty right now, which has left 80-year-old grandmas who have had to find a place to live without any help,” he said. “So we have a crisis on our hands.”
What concerns him right now is the rise in crime in the area, he said, along with other changes he’s witnessed over the last few years. He said he believes that what was built on church effort has been taken from them, which strikes at the heart of their beliefs. These concerns relate to the issues with the United Effort Plan.
“I’ve seen that things have changed on a moral level, but you cannot legislate some issues,” he said.
Maha Layton was born and raised in Hildale, which she said gives her an inside perspective on the many changes that have taken place over the last several years. While she moved away from Hildale at one point, Layton said she has no judgment against the people or their beliefs and that she has returned to Hildale by choice because it is home.
“I actually think that being from Hildale – and being raised FLDS but no longer FLDS – gives me the ability to represent them fairly because there’s no judgment on my part,” she said. “I have empathy for the people and understand the struggles.”
Layton also mentioned that the perception that Hildale is predominantly FLDS members may not be true, with members moving away and past members returning, so that turnover would naturally bring a change in demographics.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is Hildale made up of?’ and we have to get to know our community to figure out what our constituents want and then speak for them,” she said.
Layton said that if elected, the three areas she would like to focus on include education, allocating more funding to increase commerce in Hildale and restoring a sense of community.
She would like to see programs implemented that enhance education or, more specifically, information that can be made available to those who may be interested in starting a business in Hildale or tourists who are seeking new places to visit.
On a somewhat related note, Layton said she would also like to see more funding allocated to projects that will increase commerce in the area, as well as revenue-building enterprises that include tourism, which will allow visitors to enjoy the inherent beauty of the area.
However, one of the more significant issues plaguing the town is the loss of a sense of community, she said, and the need to get it back. One of the ways this could be accomplished is to develop events unique to Hildale and something that residents can look forward to.
Other communities have events specific to that town or city, she said, such as the Hurricane “Peach Days” or Garden City “Bear Creek Raspberry Days,” in Garden City. These events can help strengthen community ties and augment a sense of belonging.
“Every person there needs to know that they belong to Hildale,” Layton said, “and I look forward to being a part of the change that leads to creating or initiating Hildale events that residents can be a part of.”
Jared Nicol is also seeking election for one of the council four-year terms. Nicol moved to Hildale from West Valley with his wife and children after they fell in love with the area, he said.
While volunteering with an organization in northern Utah, the couple made regular trips to the Hildale area delivering shoes, clothing and other items. The family relocated and purchased a home shortly thereafter.
“This is a fantastic community to raise our kids in; they can ride bikes, go fishing,” he said. “While there are things unique to the area, there are very genuine people here, and they are all fantastic people.”
Nicol said he has heard the rumors that everyone will walk if non-FLDS council members come on board, but he hasn’t found any evidence to substantiate those claims and believes the focus is to move forward.
He added there are benefits to establishing a diversified board, particularly in light of the change in demographics with more non-FLDS or former members moving back to the area.
“I’m coming here with fresh eyes,” he said, “and even though there are some things that are unique to Hildale, I really don’t view it as being that much different from anywhere else.”
One of the issues he would like to address if elected is the division that still exists within the community, and he would like to work towards a more united town. He said he has established many friendships and relationships since moving to Hildale, and he sees a lot of hope and believes the community is moving forward.
“I’m not here to be on a side or to be on a team, I’m just here to see if I can help to make things better,” Nicol said.
Consistent with other candidates, evictions are a big issue for Nicol. Since evictions began in August 2014, more than half of the 150 homes in Hildale were left empty and later purchased or auctioned off, he said.
Edwin Barlow could not be reached for comment.
Hildale City Council candidates – two-year term
Elmer Johnson, a lifelong resident of Hildale who has served on the City Council for more than a decade, believes his goal on the council is to make the community better, and he said that will continue to be his focus.
The issue of whether the council is made up entirely of FLDS members or non-FLDS individuals doesn’t play such a critical role when compared to the work ahead of them in rebuilding the community, Johnson said.
“Sometimes we have to set our religious differences aside for the betterment of the community,” he said, “and that’s what has to happen.”
Johnson also mentioned Hildale has a history of working together on a municipal level with those outside of their faith. It’s not as foreign as some may believe, he said, adding that he just wants to ensure that all people are treated fairly, including those of the FLDS faith.
“Every City Council member has their own ideas,” he said. “I think everyone wants to work toward a better community, whether they are FLDS or ex-FLDS, and we are working together now on other projects so I don’t see any problem with it.”
Jvar Dutson did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
“Short Creek”: then and now
According to the Washington County Historical Society, Short Creek was established in 1860 by William B. Maxwell. The town served as a stopover for visitors until Maxwell moved his families to Mexico to avoid prosecution for polygamy. Then, in 1911 Jacob Marinus Lauritzen moved his family down from Richfield, Utah, joined by the James Black family in 1918.
In 1942, the United Effort Plan – or UEP – was created by the FLDS church in which all property and assets belonging to the sect were placed in a trust owned by the church, allowing members to share in the assets as part of a religious principle in line with their beliefs.
In September 2002, Warren Jeffs took control of the 12,000-member FLDS church after the death of his father, 92-year-old Rulon Jeffs.
In 2005 Warren Jeffs was indicted on charges of sexual misconduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual misconduct with a minor, among other charges, and later that same year federal prosecutors in Arizona charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
In June 2005, the Utah Attorney General’s Office asked a Utah judge to freeze the assets of the FLDS church’s UEP trust based on claims that Warren Jeffs pilfered the trust. A special fiduciary was appointed to control $110 million of the church’s assets.
Most of the property and residences in both FLDS cities – Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona – were held in the UEP, and the court appointed Bruce Wisan, an accountant, to act as a special fiduciary of the trust.
Utah officials reportedly feared that without intervention, the members of the FLDS church would lose their homes.
One of the requirements formerly in the trust, that any beneficiary of the assets must be a church member in good standing, was removed. This made it possible for those who placed assets or work into the trust to be considered beneficiaries of the trust, regardless of their standing in the church.
The state required that all residents who wanted to remain on their property sign an occupancy agreement and pay $100 per month to cover the cost to administer the trust. The other option was to buy the property outright at a cost well below the market value. Property tax payments were to be kept current as well.
For the most part, the FLDS members have refused to sign occupancy agreements, and property taxes have gone unpaid in numerous cases, even for years. For many families the arrearages owed went into the thousands of dollars.
Those who refused to enter into the agreements risked eviction.
Complicating matters further, the UEP hired former FLDS members to manage the properties and record keeping. Years later, a judge appointed more former FLDS members to the board of trustees.
FLDS members were taught not to trust those who had left the church, so to enter into a contract or agreement with former members went against their religious beliefs, even at the cost of being evicted from their home.
For many members, it was an impossible choice.
Further, they saw the seizure as government persecution and theft, and others refused to pay for the land they said they already owned and later placed in the trust as an act of faith and devotion to the church.
However, other issues with the UEP stem from the fact that many of the residents weren’t aware the trust was altered years before the state took control by Warren Jeffs, who modified it to transfer all church assets to him and his brothers.
Regardless, many loyal FLDS members have left a community that for more than a century they have called home and are now scattered throughout Utah and surrounding states.
In recent years, in a series of lawsuits and court filings, federal and state officials have accused the towns of denying housing and municipal services to residents who live outside the sect and used the police to enforce this alleged discrimination.
In regards to the 2017 municipal election – to be held Nov. 7 – given several concerns and past complaints, the city has turned the entire ballot counting process over to Washington County per a suggestion made by the state during an April presentation on election law. The presentation was made at the request of Hildale City Recorder Raymond Barlow.
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.