Polygamy: Should towns be put under county control?

A judge wants to end a 'revolving door of noncooperation'

Salt Lake Tribune/January 23, 2007
By Brooke Adams

A Utah judge fed up with lack of cooperation from a polygamous sect wants Utah and Arizona to look at disenfranchising two towns.

Third District Judge Denise Lindberg asked Monday that attorneys general in both states look at "systematic action" to end a "revolving door of noncooperation" from law enforcement and elected officials in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Such action would likely require the towns to be brought under county government management - which the states could have difficulty doing under current disincorporation, deannexation and malfeasance laws.

The judge's comments caught Hildale Mayor David K. Zitting by surprise.

"I don't know what to say about it," he said when reached by telephone.

Neither Colorado City Mayor Terrill Johnson nor acting Deputy Mayor David Darger returned a telephone call from The Salt Lake Tribune.

The two towns are home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect led by Warren S. Jeffs. About 6,000 FLDS members live in the community, which took off in the 1930s as a religious haven where polygamy flourished.

The Utah court has managed the sect's property trust, which owns virtually all land, homes and buildings in the twin towns, since May 2005. But most residents have paid little heed to court-appointed fiduciary Bruce R. Wisan, an admonishment Wisan says comes from Jeffs.

Jeffs, who has led the faith since 2002, is currently incarcerated at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane, awaiting trial on charges of being an accomplice to rape for officiating at an arranged marriage. Jeffs' control over the FLDS remains unbroken, however.

FLDS faithful risk being cut off from the church and their families by Jeffs if they cooperate to any degree with the court actions.

Residents stay away from town meetings where trust changes are explained, and many balk at paying property taxes until threatened with eviction.

Deputies with the Colorado City Town Marshal's Office, which also serves Hildale, have been reluctant to work with or answer questions from Wisan. Police agencies in both states are looking at decertifying the entire force.

City officials in Colorado City and Hildale refused to take action on a subdivision plat Wisan submitted to them in December. The fiduciary plans to use the map to divide the community into individual, taxable lots and begin issuing deeds to qualified residents.

The Hildale City Council sent Wisan a letter saying it would not fight any court effort to get the subdivision approved. Last week, Wisan asked a judge to do just that.

After listening Monday to Wisan and Jeff Shields, his attorney, recount the "painfully slow" progress being made in the community, Lindberg asked if the attorneys general might be able to wield a "bigger force" over the towns.

"We're going to have to deal with it in a more systematic fashion, and the attorneys general are going to have to be involved," Lindberg said. The judge also suggested that legislative action may be needed to "ensure that nobody is above the law."

Tim Bodily, a Utah assistant attorney general, told Lindberg his office had looked at challenging Hildale's city status but opted not to take any action.

Dissolution of the city would require a petition from 25 percent of the city's voters and then majority approval - something unlikely given most community residents are faithful FLDS.

Deannexation, another option, is an involved process that would require assurance from the counties that all services could be provided without interruption, Bodily said later.

The Utah Attorney General's Office also has looked at removal of city officers for malfeasance but has not yet opted to go that route, he said.

"We reserve the right to revisit that at any time," Bodily said. "It is clear [the judge] wants us to look closer at the issues, and we'll do that. The judge is concerned, and rightfully so, that public officials comply with the law and fulfill their obligations. We'll certainly do what we can to ensure that they do."

David Church, general counsel for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said he was unaware of any process for a forced disincorporation.

"I have never heard it happen before," Church said.

Fiduciary says property trust has money problems

A property trust once run by a polygamous sect has plenty of land, buildings and megafamily houses but little cash, a court-appointed fiduciary said Monday.

Bruce R. Wisan told 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg he has $91,000 in the bank - enough to pay day-to-day bills but not to cover fees for himself or his attorneys.

The trust owes approximately $473,133 to the law firm Callister, Nebeker & McCullough and a little over $100,000 to Wisan's accounting firm. Wisan already has paid out about $1.5 million in trust expenses since May 2005.

Wisan seeks a cash infusion from sale of trust property between Hurricane and Hildale in an area known as "The Gap." He also hopes to unload a building in Hildale formerly occupied by Western Precision, a machining company that moved to Las Vegas in August.

After failing to close deals with several prospective buyers, Wisan now plans to auction the building on Feb. 27. The minimum bid required: $2 million.

Meanwhile, negotiations took place Monday afternoon in two lawsuits against the trust. Six so-called Lost Boy plaintiffs allege they were driven out of the community by edicts from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Brent Jeffs alleges he was sexually abused by FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs more than 20 years ago.

Wisan has proposed a settlement that, among other things, gives each plaintiff a 3-acre unimproved lot or a 1-acre improved lot.

A judgment in a third lawsuit could prove far more costly to the trust. A young woman identified as M.J. - known as a Jane Doe in a criminal suit pending against Jeffs - seeks a multimillion dollar settlement for enduring a forced marriage. Roger Hoole, who represents M.J. and the other plaintiffs, recently asked for default judgment.

That case could set a precedent that leaves M.J. and other underage brides as the only trust beneficiaries, said Jeff Shields, Wisan's attorney.

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