Mayor of Eureka: The man who blew up Utah GOP convention
Politics • Tirade at the mic isn’t his main problem – residents don’t trust him.
Published: May 14, 2012 10:33AM
Updated: August 28, 2012 11:33PM
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Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune Milton Hanks, mayor of Eureka, carries one of his paintings into his home. Hanks, who cemented his reputation as a controversial figure at the recent state Republican convention, wants to clean up Eureka. Some residents say he's done little to nothing to help revitalize the town.

Eureka • It takes about three minutes, going the 35 mph speed limit, to drive through this old mining town on Highway 6 on the way to the sand dunes out west.

It takes Billy Baum considerably less time to say something negative about the city’s mayor, Milton Hanks.

“I guess I know him better than most,” Baum said. “The guy, in my mind, is a flim-flam man.”

The lanky 75-year-old settled onto a step under a low overhang that drew wasps so large they could be heard bumping into wood. A dusty Skil saw lay on the concrete patio surrounded by a faded, uneven stick fence. Around the corner from where he sat was a row of storefronts that looked as if they’d gone 15 rounds with a recession and lost.

That, in fact, might be the only thing Baum and Hanks agree on — there is a desperate need for economic stimulus in the Juab County town. In fact, both mention Park City as a model of what they’d like Eureka to be. But while they both want it, neither seems to trust the other to do it the right way.

The problem for Hanks is fewer in town seem to trust him. Public confidence in him wasn’t bolstered any by his recent long-shot run for Congress and the events that thrust him into the spotlight on April 21.

Convention chaos • On that Saturday, Hanks arrived at the state Republican convention having the longest of long odds to secure the nomination for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District and dropped a bombshell when it was his turn at the microphone.

When he spoke, it wasn’t about tax policy or balancing the budget. Instead, it was an angry tirade about backroom politics, about deals and conspiracies against Chris Stewart orchestrated by other top-tier candidates through a last-minute letter that few delegates claim to have actually seen.

His explosive comments led to chaos and, eventually, Stewart securing the nomination without a primary. The state party investigated.

“I have no way to prove or disprove what was said,” Hanks said. “The party couldn’t determine it either, so I don’t feel bad.”

But the events left many wondering who Hanks was.

For Hanks, who isn’t prone to giving short answers, it’s a complicated stew of careers, hobbies and ambitions spanning several states but usually leading back to two passions: sailing and painting.

“I wanted to be an artist,” he said, sitting in the Eureka City Council Chambers. “But I had seven kids, and that killed my art career. The joke is I screwed myself out of being an artist.”

He has a sailboat in Eureka and said that once his mayoral term ends in 2013, he might head out to the ocean again. Hanks said he’s going to be a one-term mayor because he’s a strict believer in term limits.

That suits Sharon Brewer just fine.

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‘Anybody’ but Hanks • Brewer owns This and That, an antique store on Main Street. She said if the mayor did run again, she’d have an easy choice — the person not named Milt Hanks.

“Anybody but him,” she said. “My big, fat dog. Anybody.”

Brewer calls herself a “newbie” to Eureka, even though she’s lived there for more than 30 years. She said Hanks is never around, doesn’t own property in the city and seems to go out of his way to stymie business development.

She accused him of creating hurdles for Baum to restore the storefronts, dragging his feet on promises — including one made early in his term to bring a cellphone tower to the area.

“Never happened,” she said.

The nearest cellphone service is heading east on Highway 6, close to Elberta.

Across the street from Brewer’s shop is Brad’s Guns. Owners Brad and Tammy Hiskey complained they made repeated attempts to get a business license signed by Hanks so they could operate.

Instead, it took weeks for him to sign it.

“For a mayor who claims to be pro-business, you’d think he’d want to help that along,” Tammy Hiskey said.

Her husband leaned against the counter of their tiny shop not far from a rusting, yellow caboose used as a hangout by local kids.

“He hasn’t done anything,” he said.

But Hanks points a finger at Baum, saying he’s holding up progress by refusing to sell the old buildings and letting developers come in and do work. He said as long as Baum has a hold on that key part of the street, it can’t change.

Baum said, however, if he sells the buildings he bought 15 years ago now, he’d never get his money back on them. And in that stalemate, the stores remain largely empty and the city’s only bank is an ATM at City Hall.

A complicated man • Hanks won his mayor’s spot by a landslide in 2009 — 213 votes to 30 votes for Theron Hardin. For the town of about 700 people, Hanks was largely an unknown quantity coming from Cedar Hills. He’d lived in town for five years, renting a small house near the elementary school.

He was born in Idaho, but grew up in Oregon and Ohio before moving to Utah. It was in Ohio that he damaged nerves in his left hand when goofing around with a friend and putting his fist through a glass window. In 1972, he avoided being drafted by the U.S. Army and Marines by enlisting in the Air Force.

After a six-year stint in the military (“a vanilla record”) he did a slew of jobs ranging from teaching to venture capitalism. At one point, he said he spent a year living on a boat and sailing around the Caribbean.

He’s been married for more than 40 years, but lives apart from his wife. He said she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and he could no longer live with her — they’ve lived apart for about nine years. But he said he wouldn’t divorce her.

“It’s complicated,” he said.

Hanks’ life is also marred by financial struggles.

He has filed for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy twice, in 1995 and in 2005. In each case, the debts weren’t dismissed and state court records show about a half-dozen lawsuits filed in attempts to collect money — the largest in excess of $23,000.

Several Eureka residents said they had heard about his jumbled past, but most just seem to wish he was doing more to inject economic vitality into town.

Susan Jackson, who has lived in Eureka for 44 years, said she remembers the city being “a ghost town” growing up and thinks Hanks has done well as a leader. But she said he has been stymied by people who don’t want to see change.

“He’s tried hard to work with people, but there are just some in this community who don’t want to and it’s been sort of a head-butting situation,” Jackson said. “I think he’s tried to make Eureka better — but he’s been constrained.”

Hanks says he was instrumental in bringing back Silver Days — an August event that features a parade and booths to commemorate the city’s rich history as a mining town.

“We need some community identity,” he said. “It was a good place to start.”

He also touts his getting historic lighting to the main street — though right now it’s only three light poles — and said when KSL Radio personality Doug Wright, who owns a home in the area, brings motorcycle rides to the city, it’s a boost to the image.

Hanks would like to capitalize on that but said with a city budget of about $312,000 a year, it’s tough to get projects rolling.

“Right now, we’ve got buildings falling down everywhere,” he said. “But if you start building up Main Street, a lot of things can turn around.”

But Tammy Hiskey is skeptical of his motives.

“I think he just wants to be somebody,” she said.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero