HILDALE —After winning her bid for a second term as Hildale’s mayor in the Nov. 2 municipal election, Donia Jessop has received a relatively warm reception.
On Nov. 4, the city’s reinstated leader gained applause for her win, as did new Hurricane Mayor Nanette Billings at the monthly meeting of the Washington County Republican Women. At the Nov. 10 city council meeting, there was no pause to acknowledge Jessop’s victory over her opponent Jim Barlow. Still, she considers any functioning governmental meeting a success.
She and the council plunged into the nuts-and-bolts work of running a city. As usual, infrastructure and zoning dominated the agenda.
“When we first got here, there was no zoning, and that’s one of the first things we did. We zoned the community,” Jessop said. “It’s been really hard. Sometimes the people want to do what they want to do on their land and not be in the zone they’re in. I’m like, it’s not the wild, wild west anymore. This is what normal towns do.”
Hildale is far from your usual town, although it’s getting closer. For years it was an enclave of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous sect that long dominated the twin cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, an area collectively known as Short Creek. The religion holds that women should be subservient to men.
Jessop, who married her husband Joe when she was 17, grew up FLDS in a stable home, albeit one with two moms. She says families were tight-knit when she was a kid. People were kind to one another and though she and other women in the city wore modest prairie-style dresses and the characteristic sweeping updo hairstyle, they knew how to let their hair down from time to time. For instance, annual dances were held for the young people in town.
Things changed after 2002 when Warren Jeffs became leader of the FLDS Church after the death of his father. Jeffs, considered the new prophet, had control over every aspect of members’ lives. He had the sole right to officiate over marriages and who married whom. He and other FLDS elders began to take large numbers of wives, some underage. In order to obtain the most eligible brides, Jeffs and his cohorts kicked large numbers of men and boys out of the church and out of town. Some men fled with their families . Others had to start a new life. Families were ripped apart by the separations.
Jeffs was arrested in 2011. He is currently serving a life sentence for sexually abusing two minors, girls he called his spiritual wives.
Jessop continued her membership in the FLDS Church until 2012. She and her husband were excommunicated from the church and urged to leave the community. It was suggested they leave one of their 10 children behind, a 9-year-old girl, to be raised in the FLDS community.
In 2012, the Jessops fled to the St. George suburb of Santa Clara. But in 2016, Joe said he wanted to move back to Hildale. When residents began to talk about who should be the next mayor, Jessop raised her hand. She can’t say she wasn’t warned.
“People say, ‘If you’re going to run for mayor, to be in politics, you have to have a really thick skin.’ I always tell them, I’m not a politician, I’m a leader,” Jessop said. “But thick skin? I think it’s an understatement. You have to realize that anything someone says is about them and doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
Jessop says her background makes her uniquely qualified to help Hildale thrive.
“I think I will always view life through the lens of where I came from and the trauma that happened here,” Jessop said. “But I want to move on from that. Not just move on but to heal and be one of the healers, one of the people that lead out in a healing way.”
An inauspicious start
Until 2017, when Hildale got its first secular mayor and council, the city was suspended in time. the city leaders were all male and all members of the FLDS Church. Rather than codifying laws, building infrastructure and regulating the town’s growth, they focused largely on supporting the church.
On her first day on the job, Jessop was locked out of City Hall. Then came an exodus as 15 city employees and board members resigned between November 2017 and February of 2018. The reasons for the defection were evident, but only one of the people who quit, the utility board chairman, said it outright.
“It has come to a point where I have to choose between my religion and participation in city government, and I choose my religion,” he wrote in a February 2018 letter to the city. “My religion teaches me that I should not follow a woman for a leader in a public or family capacity.”
The showdown drew national attention and headlines. People were fascinated. Could a woman come into a once-lawless town, a place with a clear patriarchy, and effect change?
The lost staff and council were replaced by a new team, ready to take the town into the future. At first there was a lot of pushback from the community over issues like zoning, and resistance still remains. At the recent city council meeting, attendees took to the podium during a public hearing to appeal another step in the zoning process.
Jessop and the council have plans to annex certain unincorporated parcels into the City of Hildale. One man spoke of the trauma of being kicked out of Hildale under Jeffs’ leadership and having to move to the outskirts of town. He said it opens old wounds for his family to be informed they are once again Hildale residents.
Jessop and the council said they would take the public comments into consideration.
Jessop has acknowledged the growing pains.
“Who likes change? I don’t know one soul who likes change,” Jessop said in an interview with St. George News. “In order to set direction for the future, you have to have that vision of what you want that future to look like. And there’s some hard things that need to be done now, for our children, our great-grandchildren and our great-great grandchildren so the community is sustainable.”
Despite their opposition to the council’s zoning goals, the speakers at the council meeting remained polite. It’s taken a lot of work for Jessop to forge trust with Hildale residents and be received with civility if not agreement.
“The woman who won the election last week is not the woman who won the election four years ago. My soul is the same, my love for the community and the people are the same, but I am a different person,” she said. “For the good, I should say.”
Jessop cited a number of goals for the future. These include securing the city’s water supply and working with a limited tax base to get as many of the town’s roads paved and repaired as possible. She places a big emphasis on providing basic resources and mental health services to help families and their kids remain stable. Jessop says once they have a strong foundation, children can take advantage of educational and career opportunities now available in Hildale.
In August, Jessop made USA Today’s list of 10 Utah Women of the Century. Meanwhile, she’s turned her attention back to the push-pull effort of governing a city with increasingly diverse views. For instance, Jessop says some residents in Hildale, which has a population of just under 3,000 people, hope to discourage outside influences.
She said the town is split on whether they want tourism. Jessop takes a more proactive view.
“The fact of the matter is we have tourists. We’ve always had tourists,” Jessop said. “So do we create space for them and set the narrative to that or do we just go running along behind it, trying to clean it up?
“I say we lead out. Do it the way we want it done and help guide the way this community grows.”
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