Former Toquerville mayor denies conflict of interest in contract with developer

Keen Ellsworth was actively involved in the proposed Toquerville Athletic Recreation Complex, or ARC.

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

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Former Toquerville Mayor Keen Ellsworth wants to clear the air of any insinuation of wrongdoing that might cloud his reputation or his service to the small southern Utah town.

Contrary to speculation, Ellsworth said his decision to resign as mayor was not due to a Sept. 7 meeting, at which council members agreed to the developer’s request to abandon their joint venture to develop a $65 million sports park on 607 acres of public land north of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Ellsworth was actively involved in the proposed Toquerville Athletic Recreation Complex, or ARC, which the developers — American Charter Development and Eastward Management Group — said would have featured an RV park, wave pool, pickleball courts, 32 ball fields, a charter school, a 150,000-square-foot recreation center, trails and a parking lot big enough for 6,000 cars.

Nor, the ex-mayor added, did he step down as a result of his divulging to council members at the meeting that he had a consulting contract with the would-be developers, which posed a conflict of interest. He said city staff and the council already knew about that.

“The timing only makes it look like there might be a connection,” said Ellsworth, who resigned Sept. 13, barely eight months into his term, to accept a job as district manager of the Hurricane Valley Fire District. “There is no way I could do that job and continue to serve as mayor.”

Ellsworth’s resignation was announced at a special City Council meeting on Sept. 16. In two prior special meetings listed on the town’s website — on Sept. 9 and Sept. 13 — the council met to “discuss the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual.”

Both meetings were closed to the public.

While Ellsworth said he can’t legally divulge any details about those meetings, he acknowledged there was some discussion about him and some frustration expressed about the collapse of the proposed sports park. But he insists he was not asked to step down or pressured into resigning.

“What I would say is that [the meetings] were not just about me, but I was certainly a part of it,” he added. “And that’s because I wanted to handle the resignation in a way that would not leave the city hanging. But it didn’t have anything to do with the angle that I failed to disclose something.”

City Manager Afton Moore and Justin Sip, who has been appointed mayor pro tem or acting mayor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Toquerville resident Steve Roah, a retired sportscaster, defends Ellsworth.

“I can’t say anything bad about Keen because I just know him as a man of honesty,” he said.

“There were quite a few people who knew about [his consulting work]. This is a small little community.”

Developer Frank Tusieseina, principal behind Eastward Management, as well as Zions Landing Development Group, told The Tribune during a recent interview that Ellsworth signed two consulting contracts with EAL Investments LLD, Ellsworth’s company.

Ellsworth said he was serving on the City Council when he signed the first contract on Aug. 17, 2020, which paid him $2,000 a month to help the developers apply to the BLM for the acquisition of 607 acres of public land for the sports complex under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, or R&PP.

Ellsworth signed a second contract on Nov. 24, 2021, and was paid $18,000 to help developers negotiate the purchase of 200 acres of private property adjacent to the 607 acres to develop Zions Landing Resort, which would consist of a hotel and other amenities for the sports complex. The contract also specified the then-councilman would help Toquerville annex the land.

Under state code — the Municipal Officers’ and Employees’ Ethics Act — public officials being compensated for helping businesses involved in transactions with the city they serve must file a disclosure statement with the mayor 10 days before signing an agreement or 10 days before receiving compensation, whichever comes first.

In addition, public officials are required to disclose the potential conflict in an open meeting to the members of the body of which they are a member immediately before the discussion of an item related to that conflict.

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 The Tribune was able to secure Ellsworth’s conflict of interest statements from Toquerville.

In a sworn statement, dated Aug. 7, 2020, to then-Mayor Lynn Chamberlain, Ellsworth disclosed his consulting agreement with the developers for the sports park.

A second conflict of interest statement dated Jan. 6, 2021, which Ellsworth signed and had notarized, lacks any information about a potential conflict. In the section asked to describe the conflict, Ellsworth summed it up with one word: “none.” A statement Ellsworth signed as mayor last Jan. 19, mentions he provides consulting services for developers but fails to disclose the name of the developers or the nature of the contracts.

Toquerville City Recorder Daisy Fuentes said that, unlike the detailed Aug. 7 statement, the other two statements are general statements that are passed out to the mayor and council members each January to fill out as a matter of routine. Ellsworth said the forms were incomplete because he had no actual conflict of interest.

For example, Ellsworth said his first consulting gig with the developers expired at the end of 2020, so no actual conflict existed when he filled out the January 2021 form. As for the 2022 conflict of interest form he filled out as mayor, Ellsworth said it was for his contract to help the developers acquire the 200 acres for Zions Landing Resort.

Since it was private land, separate from the 607 acres of public land the city was trying to acquire from the BLM for the sports park and did not involve Toquerville, he explained, City Attorney Heath Snow told him he did not need to supply a separate, more detailed statement.

Snow could not be reached for comment.

Tusieseina said his company voided the first contract with Ellsworth and withdrew from the MOU with Toquerville for the sports park when the tab for a National Environmental Policy Act study the BLM wanted done turned out to be $200,000 rather than the $30,000 initially expected. The town did not have the funds and the developers were unwilling to foot the bill without the city’s assurance 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,” Tusieseina said

Ellsworth’s second contract was terminated last February for non-performance after Tusieseina learned the 200 acres his company had purchased could not be annexed into Toquerville but were already in the process of being annexed into Leeds.

With Toquerville out of the picture for ARC, the developers are looking at alternatives. Tusieseina said he is working with the Shivwits Band of Paiutes on the development and has renamed the project the Paiute Athletic Recreation & Cultural Center, which will likely be situated on the same 607 acres. One possibility is the city of Leeds or the tribe will act to acquire the public land for the complex under the R&PP.

Tusieseina said he hopes to make a major announcement once the details are firmed up.