Toquerville mayor steps down after divulging potential conflict of interest

Keen Ellsworth was a vocal booster of the proposed Toquerville Athletic Recreation Complex, or ARC.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Toquerville, Utah, on Thursday, May 12, 2022.

St. George • After news surfaced about his role as a paid consultant to the developers of a $65 million recreation complex proposed for his southern Utah town, Toquerville Mayor Keen Ellsworth has resigned.

In a special meeting last Friday, City Manager Afton Moore read Ellsworth’s resignation email, which was forwarded to her by City Attorney Heath Snow, to the City Council.

“I have just recently been offered a new career opportunity that I did not expect. It will demand far more of my time and attention, which will make it difficult for me to provide the time and attention Toquerville needs and deserves from its mayor,” Afton quoted Ellsworth as saying in the email.

Ellsworth’s resignation was effective Sept. 13.

The mayor’s decision to step down comes in the wake of a Sept. 7 meeting, at which the city announced that it was abandoning plans to develop a major sports park on 600 acres of adjoining land in Washington County. Moreover, Ellsworth informed the council at the meeting that he had a consulting contract with the would-be developers, which could be a conflict of interest.

Ellsworth was a vocal booster of the proposed Toquerville Athletic Recreation Complex, or ARC, which the developers — American Charter Development (ACD) and Eastward Management Group — said would have been the West’s largest sports complex with an RV park, wave pool, pickleball courts, 32 ball fields, a charter school, a 150,000-square-foot recreation center, trails and enough asphalt to park 6,000 cars.

Minutes from some of the council’s past meetings do not indicate the mayor publicly disclosed his paid relationship with the developers prior to Sept. 7. But Councilman Gary Chavez said the city already knew about Ellsworth’s consulting gig.

“That was not the first time he had disclosed this. So I believe that the public’s been misinformed with respect to this being a big surprise,” said Chavez, who refused to elaborate further.

Neither Ellsworth nor Moore could be reached for comment.

Developer Frank Tusieseina, principal behind Eastward Management, as well as Zions Landing Development Group, said he signed two consulting contracts with EAL Investments LLD, Ellsworth’s company.

The first, which was inked in August 2020 when Ellsworth was on the council, paid him $2,000 a month to help the developers apply to the BLM for the acquisition of 600 acres of public land for the sports complex under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, or R&PP.

In November 2021, Ellsworth signed a second contract in which he agreed to help developers negotiate the purchase of 200 acres of private property adjacent the 600 acres off Interstate 15 to develop a hotel and other amenities for the sports complex. The contract also specified the then-councilman would help Toquerville annex the land.

Tusieseina said his company ended the first contract last October after the BLM signed off on the 600 acres subject to a National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA study. Informed by the city that the study would cost about $30,000, the developers agreed to pay for it. Upon learning the tab would actually be closer to $200,000, they still agreed to cover the cost provided the city assured that Tusieseina’s company would be the developer of ARC.

“When the city announced that there was no guarantee the project would be awarded to us, we decided to withdraw from the project,” said Tusieseina, adding the contract for Ellsworth’s services was also terminated.

Tusieseina said his company paid $18,000 under the terms of the second contract with Ellsworth but nixed the agreement last February for nonperformance after he learned the 200 acres his company had purchased could not be annexed into Toquerville.

“Ellsworth told us [the annexation] would be done within six months after our purchase,” he said. “We later discovered that was never going to be possible because the property was already registered to be annexed into Leeds. [Ellsworth and other city officials] wanted the economic benefits for [Toquerville].”

As for the nondisclosure provisions in both contracts, he added that was to prevent Ellsworth from providing details about the project to other developers and preventing us from speaking to other cities interested in the project. He said those provisions are clear that the consultant was not to hide his involvement from the city.

“It didn’t have any to do with trying to hide anything from the city or the public,” said Tusieseina, adding that city officials were fully aware of the project.

With Ellsworth gone, the council on Sept. 16 appointed Councilman Justin Sip as mayor pro tem or acting mayor. The city is accepting applications and resumes from mayoral hopefuls until Sept. 30, and the council is expected to appoint an interim mayor on Oct. 5, the next regularly scheduled council meeting. Whoever is appointed will serve until a mayor is elected in the midterm elections slated for November 2023 and takes office two months later.

With Toquerville out of the running for the sports complex, the developers are now working with the Shivwits Band of Paiutes on the development and have renamed the project the Paiute Athletic Recreation & Cultural Center.

“It will be along the lines of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii,” Tusieseina said. “It will feature the Native American Cultural Center, next to the Jim Thorpe Collegiate Academy along with the same athletic fields and amenities.”