Polygamous town elects leaders who don't practice polygamy for first time in a century

Associated Press/November 15, 2017

By Rick Bowmer

A polygamous group's dwindling control of a remote Utah-Arizona border town that it has called home for a century slipped a bit more after official election returns showed four non-group members took over the mayor's office and three city council seats.

Donia Jessop, a former sect member who left several years ago over discord with leaders, defeated incumbent mayor Philip Barlow by winning 61 percent of the 210 votes cast in the all-mail election in Hildale, Utah, according to final results unveiled Tuesday.

Jessop becomes the town's first female mayor and the first person to hold the post who isn't a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS. The group is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

Jessop said she's excited and hopeful the transition will be smooth after Barlow and current council members on Tuesday graciously accepted the results presented by county officials during a council meeting she attended.

She said she wants to give residents better water, better roads and explore using fiber optics already in place to offer internet as a utility. She also wants to create a better sense of community by offering more town events.

"Big changes are heading our way," Jessop said. "There's so many things lined up and ready to roll."

Barlow, who was looking to win a second term, wasn't immediately available for comment. He said last week after initial results showed he was likely to lose that he'll accept the will of the people and move on to other opportunities in his life.

Hildale is part of a community that also includes the sister city of Colorado City, Arizona, which has elections next year.

In the Hildale council races, Maha Layton and Jared Nicol won four-year seats while JVar Dutson won an election to fill the final two years for a councilman who left early. Two other members of the five-person council remain in place because they weren't up for re-election: Doran Jessop and Brian Jessop.

The competitive elections were another sign of the major changes the community has undergone in recent years. In the past, mayors and council members were decided behind the scenes by the FLDS choosing men to run unopposed, making elections non-events.

The new town leadership is the latest sign that the community's demographics are shifting as the town begins to resemble a typical Western town, not a cloistered religious community.

Government-ordered evictions of sect families from nearly 150 homes forced many members to seek refuge in trailers around town or in different cities across the West. The town governments and the police are being watched closely by court-appointed monitors after a jury found them guilty of civil rights violations. Also, a food-stamp fraud case led 10 people to plead guilty and exacerbated a leadership void.

People such as Donia Jessop with past ties to the group have returned to buy the evicted homes and in some cases, open new businesses. She other former sect members consider the changes progress that will help the community break free from the reign of sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving life in prison in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

But FLDS members believe the town they built and love is being ripped away from them. They still believe Jeffs is their prophet and that he was wrongly convicted.

Lori Barlow said Tuesday she believes the evictions were accelerated this year to change the electorate so the outsiders could win.

"It hurts. It's like losing anything you love," Barlow said. "It's heartbreaking but under these circumstances it was to be expected."

New council member Nicol, one of only a few residents who isn't a current or former member of the FLDS, said he will try to be a voice for all residents and work to get the city to work more cooperatively with a board that runs a former church trust that holds most the property. In the past, the board of former sect members and city leaders have sometimes clashed.

"The diversity of representation is going to give a better product to everyone involved," Nicol said. "It just shows that things have swapped."

Donia Jessop and the others are expected to be sworn in early January. She left the FLDS four years ago with her husband and 10 kids over unrest about how Jeffs was running the group. She and her husband later brought a "sister wife" into the family, and the two women now raise their children and run the family business together.

She and others in the new political group they call "RISE" are already setting their sights on winning elections next year in Colorado City, including the mayor's seat.

"There's people already standing up saying they're ready to do this," Donia Jessop said. "Hopefully, this has shown people this can happen."

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