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Brigham City mayor driven to stay in office amid affair flap

Published January 25, 2013 8:27 am

Brigham City • Residents divided as Fife, who has revealed affair, pushes to complete controversial plan.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the wake of his December confession of an extramarital affair and the City Council's subsequent stripping of some of his powers, Brigham City Mayor Dennis Fife remains resolved to stay in office.

Two factors drive him to stay.

First, Fife says, his wife has told him that's what she wants.

Second, he hopes to complete a controversial hotel project that he argues is key to creating a new city center at Academy Square — the area surrounding City Hall and the vacant, century-old Academy building.

Since 1998, the city has spent more than $1.2 million to buy property and demolish buildings to create an open canvas. That tally, from the city's finance department, doesn't include the $265,000 land transaction approved by council members earlier this month.

In their first City Council session this year, members also voted 3-2 to approve a development agreement with Western States Lodging, which plans to buy a portion of the land to build a Hampton Inn.

That deal hinges on the city obtaining a $1 million pass-through federal loan for rural economic development. Western States would assume the loan and purchase the land from the city for $500,000.

"I wanted to stay in to see this hotel happen," Fife said, noting that earlier city leaders "had the vision of this being a city square, and they'd started to purchase properties to make it happen."

But others say the nature of the project changed under Fife.

"At the time I was on the council, the original Academy Square project … was supposed to be a community gathering place with a skating rink and amphitheater," said former two-term Councilman Bob Marabella, noting that, when Fife took office, it shifted direction and became more of a commercial venture.

For his part, Marabella said he opposed the city providing advantages to one business that competitors would not have.

However, Fife views the new hotel as a means to an end.

"The idea of the hotel is to get the tax increment off of the already-established redevelopment area, and then bond to finish the Academy building," Fife said. "The hotel is a mechanism to do that."

The Academy has received seismic upgrades but currently remains unusable without significant restoration.

Councilman Scott Ericson, one of the three votes in favor of the hotel agreement, said that Western States has agreed to pay market value for the property and will invest its own funds to launch the $6 million project.

But Ericson believes the project is far enough along to survive without Fife.

"We're at the point with the hotel," Ericson said, "that with or without Mayor Fife, it will still get accomplished."

Fife found a strong ally and fellow visionary in Jeff Packer, of All Pro Real Estate Inc., who began contracting with the city to provide real estate services in September 2009.

"The city hired me to purchase the Academy building many years ago and it sat vacant," Packer said. His services were tapped again when the city began acquiring property around the old structure. Packer views Fife as key to the project's continued progress.

"To get someone else up to speed would not be easy and [Fife] has established personal relationships there," Packer said. "I support him staying, although I'm saddened by his mistake."

At present, Packer is the sole real estate agent to have a signed contract with the city, according to the City Recorder's Office. But Marabella, also a real estate agent, has agreed to represent the city on certain requested tasks.

Packer's contract allows him to charge $100 per hour for consulting, with anything over 15 minutes billable as an hour. On some invoices, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a government open-records request, Packer gave the city a 20 percent "valued client" credit. In addition to consulting fees, Packer also makes his regular commission off of land transactions.

Marabella said he agreed to charge the city $25 per hour for consulting and, as a matter of principle, would refuse any commissions.

One Brigham City property owner who continues to seek Fife's resignation due to the affair also questions his continued oversight of the city's land deals.

During the Jan. 3 council meeting, Suresh Kulkarni urged members to further trim Fife's powers by removing any decision-making authority on the hotel project and other land acquisitions.

Kulkarni is pushing for Utah lawmakers to enact a recall law that would provide constituents with a mechanism to remove elected officials from office for incompetence, misconduct or ethical breaches.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, is sponsoring such a bill, but, so far, it remains unnumbered and without content. The 45-day legislative session begins Monday.

Packer said he believes the recall legislation is dead on arrival.

"I don't think it's going to go any place in the Utah Legislature," Packer said. "It's an exercise in trying to appease citizens who asked [Perry] to do it."

Kris Powers, a partner in the Leavitt Group of Northern Utah, expressed frustration over Brigham City being the butt of jokes because of Fife's fling.

"I think it's ego," Powers said of Fife's refusal to resign. "My personal opinion is that he needs to go."

Powers voiced that sentiment at recent City Council meetings but said that from now on, she will join with others behind the scenes to try to force Fife out.

Powers acknowledged similar distress over the hotel project.

"There are a lot of citizens that want to see the Academy Square property developed the way we originally wanted," Powers said. That involved renovating the building and adding a restaurant and catering facilities inside, then building an outside amphitheater that could be flooded in the winter for ice skating. "Now it's become commercial," Powers said, "and will compete with [area] hotels that are not full."

To date, few details are known of the extramarital dalliance that led the LDS Church to excommunicate Fife.

His Nov. 30 confession, meant for publication in the weekly Box Elder News Journal, spoke of indiscretions with a woman whom he had formerly counseled as a Mormon bishop. Fife, 67, said he terminated the relationship and for seven months had worked his way through the repentance process. His wife supported him, Fife added, and he asked that residents forgive and support him as their mayor.

Emails obtained by The Tribune indicate that rumors about the affair began swirling through the tight-knit community in October. Fife hoped to debunk the notion that he and his wife were divorcing and that he had moved out of the city.

In an email exchange, Brigham City Attorney Kirk Morgan told Fife that the first draft of his confession disclosed too little, thus encouraging more rumors and innuendo.

In the initial draft, Fife wrote that "there have been several rumors about my personal life that have reached a large number of residents. Many of these rumors are false but unfortunately some are true." Fife did not elaborate further, deeming the matter confidential among himself, his family and LDS leaders.

In his final draft, Fife revealed a bit more but left many questions unanswered.

For Packer, people have the right to object to Fife's behavior, but the city needs to move on.

"He made a mistake, but you don't stand around abusing him," Packer said, "and I believe that's what is happening."

Powers sees it differently.

"No matter how good he is at everything, I can't get past what he did in his personal life," Powers said. "It clouds his judgment and the judgment of every person in this community."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

Twitter: @catmck