A tiny Utah town tried to wipe itself off the map, but fell a few votes short

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this March 2009 file photo, Richard Hemingway strips his line while good friend Jeremy Christensen mans the oars of his personally handmade dory while floating the A section of the Green River near Dutch John, Utah.

Voting to take your town off the map might seem counterintuitive, but it felt like the right thing to do for a number of residents of one of Utah’s most remote hamlets.

Still, most people in Dutch John, a Daggett County town of about 150, ultimately weren’t on board.

An unofficial vote count from a special election Sept. 8 showed the ballot measure going down 55-38.

Daggett County Clerk/Treasurer Brian Raymond certified the final results on Wednesday: the proposal failed 56-41.

The large voter turnout in the election — about 85% of registered voters — reflected how important the issue was for residents, according to Raymond.

“It was important to people on both sides,” he said. “The town has only been a town for five years, so they’re still learning as they go, and there’s a big learning curve there.”

Dutch John resident Thompson Davis said he started the petition to get the issue on the ballot in an effort to get rid of “heavy-handedness” by local leaders.

“They’re making it difficult to be here,” Davis said in a telephone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "There’s a vacuum of leadership here. It’s very poor. "

Davis’ petition for an election on the town’s disincorporation was approved by a judge in July, with nearly double the 18 required petition signatures.

One of those signatures was that of Joellen Reardon, who said she opposed dissolution but felt the vote was an important step to make sure residents had the opportunity to express their views.

“I believe that better control and services can be had closer to home,” Reardon said in support of remaining a town. “I am under the impression that those who were wanting to dissolve the town ... their issues are being addressed.”

For Davis, the town’s current governance isn’t just an annoyance, it’s hurting his business: Dutch John Resort.

“They seem to have some vendetta against our business,” he said. “They have decided who they want to be here and who they don’t want to be here, and they’re not happy about us being here.”

Davis said he’s tried unsuccessfully to get building permits for three years for the business. “And so we said, ‘Well, we can’t live under that — we can’t grow, we can’t progress with the heavy-handedness of the government they put together.’ And so that’s why we put the petition in place to see if citizens felt the same way, or if they want to continue on the same path. And it appears that they would like to stay on the same path, you know, based on the vote.”

He hopes, however, that residents will take a more active role in their government, specifically by volunteering for positions on the Town Council and the planning and zoning commission, something he said people have been reluctant to do in the past.

“If the citizens get involved in running the town, the town will do a whole lot better than it has.”

Davis himself doesn’t serve in any position with the town, but he said it’s not for lack of trying. “I volunteered, but they choose from a handful of people that they’ve hand-picked for those positions. And that’s not me.”

Town Councilor Harriet Dickerson sees the election results as a new beginning for residents and said the council believes there is momentum to improve the town.

“The Dutch John Town Council believes it can meet the needs of the people best. Obviously, there are others who disagree. Hence, the election,” she said. “There are issues to be worked on, and we believe working together the [41%] dissatisfaction rate can be significantly lowered.”

The election was also held against the backdrop of a contentious relationship between the town and Daggett County, including a failed suit against the county that claimed it had sold property and illegally diverted millions of dollars in federal payments over the years. The origins of the suit’s grievances lie in Dutch John’s unique history.

The town was established by the federal government in the 1950s to house workers constructing the nearby Flaming Gorge Dam. After the dam was completed in 1964, the number of residents shrunk, and the town, including its underdeveloped land, was eventually turned over to Daggett County in the late ’90s. It wouldn’t become a township until 2015.

Dutch John leaders argued in the suit that the laws governing the transfer required the majority of proceeds from property sales and an annual payment of $300,000-plus from the federal government be used only to benefit Dutch John and its residents. But a federal judge found no merit to the claims and threw out the case last year.

Dutch John’s financial problems are parallel to those of the county, which has struggled to find its footing since its inception a century ago and has taken hits in recent years from the shutdown of its revenue-generating jail and the loss of a federal contract to provide security for the dam.

The town and county have — since the lawsuit — enjoyed a collaborative relationship, according to both Daggett County Commissioner Jack Lytle and Dutch John’s Dickerson.

Lytle said the election has zero effect on those relations.

“We’ve been working with the town very well lately. The vote to disincorporate wasn’t a part of our relationship,” he said. “We were on a good path, and we can continue on.”

Editor’s note: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16, 2020. This story was updated to include the final, certified election results.