If anyone is used to confrontational politics, it’s Mike Noel.
Utah’s most strident public lands firebrand got into more than his share of people’s faces during his 16-year tenure in the Utah House as a Republican representing much of southern Utah. In addition to standing up for traditional land uses, Noel will be remembered for denouncing land managers, environmentalists, journalists, even federal prosecutors in harsh terms, sometimes accusing them of breaking laws and conspiring to undermine Utah’s rural communities.
Last year, Noel blasted one of his critics, Kanab tour operator Will James, as “a worthless piece of garbage” as the two men jockeyed to be the last in line to address the Kanab City Council during a fractious public hearing over a controversial sand mine.
The mayor ejected both men. Noel went home to bale hay; James spent the night in jail because he refused to leave. But Noel wasn’t done. The next day, he ran to court to obtain a stalking protective order, alleging that James’ demeanor and tone at two meetings and on critical social media posts were tantamount to threats.
In what appears to be an unusual application of Utah’s stalking statutes, 6th District Judge Marvin Bagley issued a permanent civil injunction, even though court records give no hint that James ever went to Noel’s home or workplace or communicated with him outside public meetings, much less level a threat. The order bars James from going near Noel or his wife, although it grants provisions for him to attend public meetings that Noel might be at, as long as he’s acting in a civil manner and keeps his distance.
Noel and his allies in local government are exploiting Utah’s broadly worded stalking statute to silence him, James says. He is appealing Bagley’s ruling, issued after a daylong hearing Jan. 6.
“I am not a criminal of any kind. The only thing I did wrong was speak out against that mine,” said James, a 41-year-old Alabamian who moved to Kanab a decade ago. “I didn’t even mouth off at the guy. I did all the right things. I went through the correct channels to focus my opposition to the mine, well within my rights as an American. … This is a vendetta.”
Noel sees the dust-up differently, yet nowhere does he allege James approached or communicated with him outside the meetings, or expressed anything resembling a threat, other than the “cackles” and “chirping” James allegedly vocalized in response to things he disputed at the meetings.
In an interview, Noel said James has a reputation for being “very, very unstable,” and he sought the protection order on the advice of Kanab Police Chief Tom Cram.
“This has caused me a lot of undue stress. I did it at the recommendation of the chief of police to protect my family, not me, but to protect my wife,” Noel said. “I’m fine. I can handle myself with Will, but I am worried about my wife and her family. That’s why we did it. It’s a simple matter to just stay away from us, stay off my property.”
There is no evidence anywhere that James had any contact with Mrs. Noel other than an exchange on Facebook regarding the mine controversy, in which he accused her family of profiting off the mine. Noel submitted the posts to the court to secure an initial, temporary injunction, but the judge later barred them from being used against James, determining that they were protected political speech.
Meanwhile, the Kane County Water Conservancy District, where Noel serves as general manager, has agreed to contribute more than $10,000 toward Noel’s legal fees, even though the sand mine — the source of the friction between the two men — had little to do with Noel’s official role.
Meanwhile, James has paid $5,000 in legal costs, he said, and owes another $10,000.
In sealed court documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, Noel and his lawyer Scott Burns alleged James' behavior was meant to “intimidate” Noel while he was speaking or about to speak at the two meetings in Kanab last year. James was ejected from both meetings, as was Noel from the City Council hearing.
“I feel threatened by Mr. James because of his volatile temper, his use of alcohol, and his aggressive, abusive behavior toward public officials that he disagrees with,” Noel wrote in his application for the protective order.
The 73-year-old Noel served in the Legislature from 2003 to 2018, when he led Utah’s charge to take control over its federally managed public lands. The former Bureau of Land Management staffer moved 43 years ago to Kane County, where he lives on a picturesque working ranch in Johnson Canyon east of Kanab. He earned his degree in zoology at the University of California at Berkeley during that city’s riotous free speech era.
Tale of two meetings
His allegations against James arose from two public meetings on July 9, 2019, when the controversial Southern Red Sands mine proposal was discussed. James was among many Kanab residents opposing the project because it would industrialize Kanab’s scenic surroundings that support a thriving tourist economy. As the owner of Dreamland Safari Tours, James regarded the mine as a threat to his livelihood.
An ardent supporter of extractive industries, Noel advocated strongly for the mine, saying it would diversify Kane County’s economy in ways that would support working families.
James says he is deeply frustrated with Kane County’s elected leaders who often ignore the concerns of those who have moved to Kanab to enjoy its iconic scenery and want to see it preserved. He acknowledges those frustrations boiled over last year when these officials were lining up behind the sand mine over objections from many residents. But he denies behaving in an aggressive manner or attacking Noel personally.
In court, James' lawyer Mary Corporon argued that her client shouldn’t be punished for his civic engagement.
“There is no form of speech more highly protected than political speech. That is how our whole government is supposed to work, and people are supposed to be able to approach their public officials at all levels of government and are supposed to be able to call them out and say, even in very stark and insulting terms, that what the public official is proposing is a bad idea,” Corporon told the judge, according to the court transcript. “And so if the conduct here is in fact a violation of the [stalking] statute ... it’s unconstitutional to restrict that kind of public speech.”
While Bagley did not entirely agree with Noel’s theory of the case, he concluded that James crossed a line and permanently enjoined him from going near or communicating with Noel or his wife, except at public meetings.
Utah’s anti-stalking law captures the many behaviors stalkers employ to frighten and harass their victims. It defines stalking as “acts in which the actor follows, monitors, observes, photographs, surveils, threatens, or communicates to or about a person, or interferes with a person’s property.”
Judges can issue a civil injunction against a person if they find by a preponderance of evidence that the alleged stalker engaged in such conduct toward the person on at least two occasions. Criminal stalking carries a much higher burden of proof.
The James case was litigated in private because most relevant documents were filed under seal. This story is based on the 276-page transcript of the Jan. 6 court hearing obtained by The Tribune and on interviews, as well as publicly available video of the two meetings.
James’ run-ins with Noel began at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, where James was asked to leave after laughing at Noel’s responses to questions regarding the proposed mine. Later that same night, James and Noel were ejected from the town library after the two argued in the speakers line at the end of a three-hour City Council hearing packed with mine opponents, according to the transcript. Because he refused to leave, James was arrested and later charged with disorderly conduct.
Noel says the police chief, Cram, called him the next day to warn him about James.
“He said, ‘You need to get a stalking order.’ And I said, ‘Why?’” Noel recalled. “This is what he said. ‘You and your wife are in danger.’”
Cram testified as a witness for Noel at the court proceeding, but his testimony never mentioned anything about James being a danger or advising Noel to seek an injunction. Noel did testify that Cram advised him to seek the stalking order, but the judge struck his claim as hearsay.
The chief did not return a phone message from The Tribune requesting comment.
A former Iron County prosecutor and one-time candidate for attorney general, Burns built his case against James on his behavior at the back-to-back Kanab meetings, first the chamber luncheon at a restaurant and later at the library during the contentious public hearing. James’ disruptive conduct at the two meetings comprised the two alleged instances of stalking required for an injunction.
Noel attended the luncheon to report on the water district’s involvement with the mine, which was limited to supplying water. James, who attended because of his opposition to the mine, uttered a “menacing laugh,” followed by a howl in response to something Noel said about truck traffic through town, according to testimony.
Noel also alleged James banged a table, but video of the meeting backed James’ testimony that he never banged anything and immediately complied with a request that he leave. At one point in the court hearing, the judge asked James to explain the difference between a laugh and a howl. The witness complied with a demonstration.
After considering those facts, the judge concluded James’ behavior at the chamber luncheon could not be regarded as stalking. Nor did Bagley view James’ Facebook posts as evidence of stalking since they were devoid of threats and fell within the purview of protected speech.
So where were the two instances of stalking the law requires before a civil injunction could be issued? They both occurred at the City Council meeting, the judge ruled. The first was when James got in line behind Noel “in a burly manner,” then a moment later when the two men were jockeying to speak last.
Corporon disputed the judge’s conclusion.
“There’s no rational basis to assign a malignant intent to [James]. These are just two guys trying to dance back and forth to get around each other in a line,” Corporon said in court. “In fact, it is ultimately Mr. Noel who raises the heat level in this situation, not to talk about the public issues, but to make it very personal because he calls my client a piece of garbage, which is the first personal attack, and only personal attack, that occurs in any of these exchanges.”
Loss of guns, reputation
James testified that he owns a pistol and a rifle, for protecting his home and for hunting. As per federal law, he gave them to a friend to hold after he was served with the temporary protective order in July 2019.
Now Noel alleges that James’ only interest in fighting the permanent order is to get his guns back.
“His whole deal now is he wants to be able to carry a gun,” he said. “It’s nothing to do with going to meetings because he can do everything he wants to do.”
That’s not true, according to James, who contends Noel perjured himself in court and mischaracterized the confrontations in his court filings to create a defamatory picture of him as a threat. His aim now is to correct the record.
“When you boil it all down, I laughed at him and I returned play in a childish game. He started the game but I did return play, so those are my faults,” James said. “I laughed at a guy in a meeting, I had to leave that meeting and then I played a childish game of who’s going to speak last at the next meeting.”
His main concern, he says, is about free speech and holding officials accountable when they use their position for personal gain.
James, who has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for his continuing legal fight, was upset to discover last month that the water district board voted to cover Noel’s legal costs. The news furthered his belief that local officials have rigged the system to get their way.
For his part, Noel asserts the district is not paying anything toward his legal fees, but it’s hard to square that with the district board’s minutes. At its September meeting, the board agreed to allow Noel “to retain an attorney to defend him in his stalking order against a private citizen who threatened him in several public meetings. The District will assume costs of legal fees," the minutes state.
The board apparently concluded that the alleged threats arose while Noel was conducting district business, but it is hard to know for sure. The issue of the fees was discussed in executive sessions at the board’s September and October meetings, where it returned to open session and voted unanimously both times to approve payments of at least $5,000.
Those payments are actually reimbursements for other expenses he has accrued on district business but hasn’t charged the district for, according to Noel.
“It’s way beyond what the cost of this thing [the James litigation] is going to be, so basically, I’m paying for it myself,” Noel said. “The public is not paying one dime on this defense. It’s coming out of my pocket.”