St. George City manager allegedly ousted over handling of drag show leaves with 6-figure settlement

In this file photo, the HBO TV series "We're Here" concert takes plce in the St. George Town Square, St. George, Utah | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Earlier this month, the St. George Mayor and City Council announced the resignation of City Manager Adan Lenhard who was leaving his role with the city to pursue other opportunities.

In this file photo, St. George City Manager Adam Lenhard speaks to media about the city’s amended water conservation ordinance, St. George, Utah, July 28, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune published Tuesday, Lenhard was pushed out by city officials due to the approval of an event permit for the “We’re Here” drag show that took place in the Town Square in early June.

Lenhard’s time as city manager officially ends Nov. 1, and according to “sources with knowledge” cited by the Tribune, he is leaving with a six-figure settlement that was negotiated to avoid a potential lawsuit over the matter. Such legal matters typically are discussed behind closed doors by the City Council and associated staff, with settlements then being approved by a public council vote.

Lenhard’s possible settlement was approved in a 4-1 vote by the City Council during its Sept. 1 meeting. Marked as a “confidential settlement agreement,” details are not immediately available and city officials involved have declined comment.

“I wish I could talk to you, but I can’t,” Councilman Jimmie Hughes told St. George News soon after the Tribune’s story dropped. “I’ll just say I made a promise to spend taxpayer money wisely and I will keep that up.”

Sources the Tribune spoke to allege that an investigation by the city indicated a lawsuit would prove costly for the city’s taxpayers, so a settlement was pursued instead.

Drag show permit controversy

In this file photo, drag queen Eureka O’Hara sings at the “We’re Here” concert hosted by HBO, St. George, Utah | | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

The “We’re Here” program is produced by HBO Max and covers the three drag queens who travel to conservatives town across America. Each episode has drag shows in those locations as a way to empower local members of the LGBTQ-plus community who may otherwise feel alone, unloved or unwanted.

Hosting the program are former RuPaul Drag Race contestants Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela. The show itself is rated for mature audiences due to language and heavy subject matters like suicide.

A public space the producers of “We’re Here” requested for the drag show was the Town Square. Some council members expressed concern about a mature-rated program being held in such a public space. It is next to the St. George Children’s Museum and the Town Square’s splash pad and lazy river – places where children and families come to visit and play.

Permits associated with the program subsequently were approved by the city manager.

The Town Square “is not suited for the HBO series, We’re Here,” Councilwoman Michelle Tanner wrote in a letter she sent to Lenhard and subsequently posted to Facebook the night of June 2. “It is rated ‘TV-MA,’ which allows for obscene language and other adult content which is contrary to the intended nature of the space requested.”

Tanner is one of the City Council’s newest members and has often been outspoken in her views concerning the city’s support of public safety, its use of public funds and other issues. She has also had heated exchanges with Mayor Michele Randall on occasion.

Tanner has been very public and vocal about her displeasure over the drag show’s approval. In late May and early June, she accused Lenhard of not following the city’s permitting process and steamrolling it through despite objections from council members. The city requires a 45-day minimum for permit applications to be submitted. The “We’re Here” application seemingly was approved in a week or two instead.

In this file photo, St. George City Councilwoman Michelle Tanner speaks at a City Council meeting, St. George, Utah, Feb, 3, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The city absolutely violated our 45 day ordinance and we do NOT approve permits in less than 1 WEEK on average,” Tanner wrote in a June 26 Facebook post.

“Most importantly, WE THE PEOPLE should be running this city, NOT unelected bureaucrats,” she added. “WE THE PEOPLE elect a legislative body to represent us. I do not trust any staff member who wouldn’t look at a permit application for an HBO TV-MA rated production being held at a children’s venue and think to themselves ‘hmm rather than revising contracts, breaking ordinances, and pushing this through in record time, maybe this should be a decision for ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES OF WE THE PEOPLE to make.’”

Council members Jimmie Hughes and Natalie Larsen also expressed concerns over texts and emails about the “We’re Here” drag show not being an appropriate event for the Town Square. Councilwoman Danielle Larkin supported the event moving forward.

A number of city emails and texts related to the drag show’s approval were given to St. George resident Dana McCabe via a public records request. Once delivered, she proceeded to make them publicly available on Facebook. McCabe also is one of Tanner’s supporters.

“It’s clear this event was greased through despite the harm this means to our community,” Tanner wrote in a May 29 email to Lenhard.

In 2015, the City Council voted to revamp its special permitting process by moving approval of such events into the hands of the city manager and his staff, as noted by Randall in a June 13 statement she posted to Facebook.

“Years ago the City Council gave City staff the authority to approve all special event permits and the ordinance was changed,” Randall wrote. “The City Council does NOT approve special event permits and hasn’t for many years. The City Council can change the ordinance so they can once again approve all special event permits.”

Approve or face a lawsuit

In this file photo, City Manager Adam Lenhard speaks during a City Council meeting at St. George City Hall, St. George, Utah, Dec. 6, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Community Education Channel, St. George News

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Lenhard approved a permit associated with the drag show and had yet to approve others by the time the City Council called an emergency closed-door meeting on May 27. The Tribune states the council ordered Lenhard to cancel the permits.

However, the following day, Lenhard said in an email that he was “unable to complete the assignment” because canceling the permit could lead to the city being sued for discrimination.

Lenhard wrote:

I realize allowing this event to take place on City property may generate criticism from some members of our community. This is a tough spot to be in. Regardless, I believe they have a First Amendment right to use Town Square and to deny them would be discriminatory. I cannot knowingly act in a way that could bring liability to our organization, nor can I ask my staff to do it. It would violate my professional commitments to protect the rights of all members of our community. I also want to protect you in your role as elected officials, and the best advice I can offer is for us to allow the event to proceed.

Lenhard also wrote that he felt the “consequences could be costly to taxpayers if we aren’t careful.”

In an email between Randall and a concerned resident, the mayor said HBO was ready to take legal action upon denial of the permit.

“HBO had lawyered up and were ready to take us to court if the permit was denied,” the mayor wrote in the email. “A public entity cannot discriminate against anyone renting our facilities based on content.”

Despite the potential threat of a lawsuit, Tanner maintains the city should not have allowed the drag show to take place where it did. She also has said the city needs to protect its children against the negative influence drag shows can bring and has demanded the City Council take time to discuss implementing measures aimed at protecting children from obscenity in public spaces.

The drag show comes and goes …

In this file photo, performers from the HBO show “We’re Here” thank St. George concertgoers for the warm welcome, pictured Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela Laquifa Wadley, St. George, Utah, June 3, 2022 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

The June 3 drag show, which drew out an estimated 2,000 people, came and went without incident.

Due to a potentially credible threat of violence against the event, the police presence was beefed up, Randall said in her statement on Facebook addressing what she called misinformation surrounding the drag show and its approval.

She also noted in an email that her son, a police officer monitoring activity at the drag show, said that aside from “two swear words in the show,” performers did not break city code or violate the law.

“There are indecency laws but that includes nudity and sex acts which the show does not and did not do,” she wrote.

and so does the city manager

According to the Salt Lake Tribune and its sources, a closed-door meeting of the council was held June 14 following a regular meeting where the mayor and City Council are said to have held an informal vote regarding Lenhard’s continued employment. The vote, which went against Lenhard, reportedly was prompted by the way he handled the approval of the drag show permits.

As a matter of process, voting a city manager out of a job requires “a majority vote of the whole city council as then constituted, convened in a regular council meeting” and is subject to provisions outlined in city code.

In this file photo, St. George City Manager Adam Lenhard following a farewell speech to the City Council and staff | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George / CEC, St. George News

“In case of his intended removal by the city council, the city manager shall be furnished with a written notice stating the city council’s intention to remove him, at least thirty (30) days before the effective date of his removal,” part of the code state on the city’s website. “If the city manager so requests, the city council shall provide in writing reasons for the intended removal, which shall be provided to the city manager within seven (7) days after the receipt of such request from the city manager.”

Additional code allows the city manager to request a hearing to contest their pending dismissal.

On Sept. 1, as a part of its consent agenda, the St. George City Council voted to approve a confidential settlement agreement in a 4-1 vote with Tanner being the dissenting vote.

The Tribune points to the settlement agreement between Lenhard and the city as a way to avoid a potential lawsuit. If Lenhard chose to file a suit against the city, it was determined that “the city would likely lose.”

As a nondisclosure agreement appears to be a part of the settlement, details surrounding its terms and how much money the city gave Lenhard is unknown with members of the City Council and staff unable to comment. However, it has been indicated that he is leaving the city with a six-figure amount.

Lenhard’s final regular council meeting was last week. He said his goodbyes to members of the City Council and expressed how much he would miss working for the city.

The city has launched a nationwide search for a new city manager with John Willis, the city’s community development director, appointed to fill the gap as the interim city manager.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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