Facing a primary candidate arguing for fiscal restraint, Uintah County’s long-serving Commissioner Mike McKee won re-election by the slimmest of margins Tuesday following a count of provisional ballots.
The three-term incumbent beat Vernal businessman Bart Haslem by three votes in the Republican primary, securing McKee the commission seat which has no other declared candidates.
McKee is among Utah’s most prominent and influential county officials and a leading advocate for greater local control over public lands. Yet he remained open to attacks from critics who say his willingness to spend shows he is not conservative enough for Uintah County.
While he disputed Haslem’s claim that the county was heading into a precarious financial future, McKee congratulated his opponent’s strong campaign and thanked his supporters.
"I have an optimistic vision moving forward. We are poised on so many opportunities for economic development," McKee said. "I knew this was going to be close. When you are visible you have the sights set on you."
At Haslem’s request, county officials conducted a recount, which affirmed McKee’s victory Wednesday. After 67 provisional and absentee ballots were considered, the results stood at 2,143 to 2,140.
He believes the narrow tally reflects growing unease with the county’s pace of spending, particularly on "luxury" projects — such as a $27 million, 66,000-square-foot convention center — that are taking away from essential infrastructure such as roads and water development.
Meanwhile, Haslem said, 2,300 supporters have contacted him in the week since the primary election, which he lost by nine votes, asking him to run in November as a write-in candidate, which he may do.
A Lapoint resident and former rancher, McKee is probably the state’s most widely recognized rural commissioner, serving a county that has undergone a drilling boom during his tenure. He testifies regularly before legislative and congressional committees regarding energy development, roads and local jurisdiction.
"Losing Mike McKee’s leadership and vision would be a major blow to Uintah County, and to the entire state of Utah," wrote Cody Stewart, Gov. Gary Herbert’s energy advisor, in an endorsement. "His understanding of the issues, his honesty and integrity, and his strong relationships with members of Congress, the governor’s office, the state Legislature, and with tribes and industry are simply indispensable."
But Haslem enjoyed endorsements from local political leaders, such as Republican Rep. John Mathis of Vernal.
"I’m a businessman not a politician. If I ran a business the way they run the county I would be out of business in two years," Haslem said. "You can’t spend money that is still in the ground. They are trying to commit mineral lease money before they even drill it."
According to McKee, the county is carrying $59 million in debt, representing about 1 percent of the tax base. About 80 percent of that load is associated with the public safety complex built five years ago.
A much larger threat to the county than debt is "federal overreach," McKee argued. "To best protect ourselves is to be able to push back. Experience and relationships are extremely important."
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