After a history soured by accusations, countercharges and ethics investigations, two former rivals from the Draper City Council say they want to focus on the future as they face off in the election to replace retiring House Speaker Greg Hughes.
What looked to be a three-way bout has narrowed with the departure of Democrat and current Draper Councilman Alan Summerhays, who told The Salt Lake Tribune he was withdrawing for health reasons.
Alex Cragun, Utah Democratic Party executive director, said the organization plans to find a replacement candidate to get on the ballot for the House District 51 seat.
Meantime, Councilwoman Michele Weeks and former Councilman Jeff Stenquist are left to duke it out and, given their track record, it could be bruising.
Both insist they’ve left the past behind.
“My plan for this election is to focus on my vision for the future and the important issues that are facing us,” said Stenquist, a Republican and ally of Hughes. “I want to be positive and not bring up some of those issues that have been raised in the past.”
“We ought to focus our campaign on what we are going to do for our citizens,” she said.
It could be a tough battle for Weeks, who is running on the new United Utah Party ticket. A third-party candidate has not won a state-level office in recent memory.
A former Democrat who previously switched to unaffiliated, Weeks says she is up for the challenge and believes the United Utah Party has a future in state politics.
“I feel we’ve become too focused on the parties and not so much who is representing the people,” she said. “I don’t want to pledge allegiance to either party. I want to pledge allegiance to my voters.”
The ghosts of a bitter past: It wasn’t long after Weeks was elected to the Draper City Council in 2015 that tensions began to show, particularly in her dealings with Stenquist and Mayor Troy Walker, who also serves on the council.
One of the first displays of discord arose in early 2016, when Weeks pushed to loosen the city’s anti-nepotism laws to allow minor children of council members and other city officials to get part-time seasonal work with Draper. She pushed the issue with support expressed by Stenquist and Summerhays.
But when the effort started getting some press and a public backlash emerged, Weeks requested to pull the proposal from the city agenda. Walker, who controls the agenda, refused to do so.
Amid the public scolding leading up to a unanimous vote against the plan, Walker laid blame for the controversy at the feet of Weeks and Summerhays, ignoring Stenquist’s earlier backing.
Things got worse the next year after Weeks filed her candidacy against the mayor.
Council colleagues accused Weeks of using government resources for personal use and for furthering her own political agenda. They hired an outside investigator to determine whether there had been ethics violations and filed a complaint with a state ethics commission.
Stenquist viewed the issues as serious, far more than “infighting” or “just an ax to grind,” he told The Tribune at the time.
Weeks viewed the action as a “way for the mayor and the council to bully me and punish me for pushing for more transparency in our local government.” In response, she hired former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who warned council members to stop their “unsupported, public allegations.”
The Utah Political Subdivisions Ethics Review Commission dismissed the complaint against Weeks as politically motivated. The city’s independent review, meanwhile, ended with the conclusion that Weeks’ use of government email was ethically questionable, but that her misuse was unintentional.
Weeks responded by declaring, “The witch hunt has ended!” in a news release issued by her campaign for mayor.
Stenquist, though, expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome, and he still feels that way.
In a recent interview, he echoed his past frustrations. Instead of a private investigator, he said, “the only person who should have reviewed that should have been someone from the district attorney’s office.”
Stenquist’s departure from the City Council has seen an end to the accusations and infighting, says Weeks.
“I have found since Jeff Stenquist and [former Councilman] Bill Rappleye have left, all the tension has left this council,” she said, “and we are now able to work together to enact better policies and have a better operating city government.”
The race may be one to watch in coming months.