Newly-elected Hildale officials reveal challenges, hopes for town during Dixie State forum

ST. GEORGE — A panel of Hildale city government officials discussed their challenges, hopes and vision to restore the spirit of an ever-changing community in the wake of the town’s historic election at a “Pizza and Politics” event hosted by Dixie State University’s Institute Politics and Public Affairs Thursday.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, speaker and author wrote.

Hildale Mayor-elect Donia Jessop discusses issues facing the town during “Pizza and Politics” forum hosted by Dixie State University’s Institute of Politics and Public Affairs department, Nov. 30, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

That turned out to be true in the Hildale election in which four non- or ex-members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were voted into office for the first time in the town’s 100-year history.

Three of the officials and one campaign manager made up the panel of speakers at Dixie State University.

The group addressed a large audience during the year’s final “Pizza and Politics” forum hosted by the Institute of Politics and Public Affairs in the Gardner Student Center.

The panel featured Hildale City Mayor-elect Donia Jessop and her campaign manager Shirlee Draper, along with newly elected Hildale City Council members Jared Nicol, who won a four-year term, and JVar Dutson, who was elected to a two-year term to replace a council member who resigned.

Newly elected Hildale City Council member Maha Layton was not present at the event.

Read more: Hildale elections represent history in the making for the predominantly FLDS community

The group covered multiple issues facing the community and outlined a goal to address the challenges ahead, including a decaying infrastructure, a municipal government previously closed to public scrutiny and the loss of community, history and sense of pride.

Newly-elected Hildale City Council member Jvar Dutson addresses the audience during “Pizza and Politics” forum hosted by Dixie State University’s Institute of Politics and Public Affairs department, Nov. 30, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Jessop said her first order of business is to look at the budget, improve the water system and attract business to Hildale once a newly-installed fiber optic network is connected.

Jessop grew up in Hildale where she remained until she left the area before returning a few years ago with her 10 children. That return was fueled by her love of the town, but was still “a difficult decision to make,” she said.

Addressing the town’s reputation of being a closed society run by a nontransparent government, Jessop said she wanted everyone to know that “the town is now open.”

Rebuilding the community’s infrastructure includes restoring and strengthening municipal services, with water, roads and internet being at the top of the to-do list for the candidates.

Jessop told the audience that in some areas of Hildale the water “has a brown color to it,” a result of the a decaying water and sewer system.

She described the condition of the roads by saying, “If any of you have ever driven out there, you feel like you are on country roads.”

L to R: Jvar Dutson, Jared Nicol, Donia Jessop and Shirlee Draper address address Dixie State University students during “Pizza and Politics” forum hosted by the university’s Institute of Politics and Public Affairs department, Nov. 30, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Dutson said he is ready for change and spoke of his commitment to serving the residents of Hildale.

“We’ve got lots of things to work on, lots of problems and lots of issues,” Dutson said, “but I want to listen to them and we want to be open in our work at the City Council and start making this better.”

Part of that work includes improving the economic, educational and employment opportunities that fuel growth and increase the number of jobs in an area that continues to struggle with poverty, Draper said.

“It’s important to note that with the lack of education and the lack of economic opportunity within the city that there is a higher proportion of the population that lives in poverty,” Draper said.

Jessop added that growth is dependent upon access to reliable internet, which many residents do not have. The archaic broadband system currently in place severely limits speed and performance capabilities that are particularly important to attract new business to the area.

Draper agreed, saying, “with limited internet access we cannot create big businesses, we can’t facilitate that – which is a big deal.”

Dixie State University student and event organizer Connor Heward during “Pizza and Politics” forum hosted by the university’s Institute of Politics and Public Affairs department, Nov. 30, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

On a positive note, property values are on the rise and while the area is still not wealthy, Draper said, stopping the mismanagement and “hemorrhaging of money” that has gone on previously within city government will provide revenue that can be earmarked for improvement projects.

Another issue that all participants on the panel addressed: the loss of community. “The history of entire families has been wiped out and we need to get that history back,” Draper said.

She went on to say that chronicling that history is even more important with the ever-changing demographics of the town. The number of residents who are active in the FLDS faith account for only 20 percent of Hildale’s population. It’s a change that occurred over a very short period of time, she said.

The community is a “great place to raise children, and I know my kids love it here,” Nichols said, adding that he got involved to help support those living there and to be a part of the change that’s underway.

Thursday’s event was organized by a group of students from Dixie State’s Institute Politics and Public Affairs, a campus hub for civic engagement, student leadership and public policy education and research.

Henrie Walton, the university’s director of the Institute Politics and Public Affairs, said that choosing this particular panel was important because the town is part of the community and the issues they are facing are important not only to Hildale, but in the region as well. He said:

Our job at the university is to engage with the community and to have dialog on issues that are important to this area, and this is exactly that and it may be controversial but it’s a conversation that we think at Dixie State that out to be had, and that goes for all meaningful conversations.

The meeting was three months in the planning, event coordinator Connor Heward said, adding that it was well worth it.

“It was really interesting and awesome to see it fold out how it did,” Heward said.

Hildale and adjacent Colorado City, Arizona, are the home of the polygamous FLDS. Its members have controlled the municipal governments there since the border towns were incorporated in the mid-20th century.

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.

The open election was part of the major shift that is ongoing in Hildale.

Support for change is growing, Jessop said. She told of a Hildale resident who approached her shortly after the election and whispered, “Don’t tell anybody, but I voted for you.”

Email: cblowers@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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