When St. George City Manager Adam Lenhard announced his resignation in early October, he said he was leaving to pursue other opportunities.
The Salt Lake Tribune has learned his resignation came after pressure from the St. George City Council over his handling of the permit for a drag show on city property on June 3.
When his resignation becomes official on Nov. 1, he won’t be leaving empty-handed. Multiple sources say Lenhard will receive a six-figure settlement to compensate for his job loss and to protect the city from legal or financial liability. That settlement was negotiated away from the public, with details protected by a nondisclosure agreement.
In May, the HBO Max program “We’re Here” applied for a permit to film and stage a drag show on city property. That request was met with opposition by prominent community members and some on the St. George City Council, according to emails and text messages obtained by The Tribune through a public records request.
“We’re Here” is a documentary-style program that follows three former “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants, Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela, who travel to towns and cities in conservative areas of the country. Each episode concludes with a public drag show featuring residents recruited by the show’s stars.
Viewers of the program know those performances can be raunchy or bawdy, but not pornographic. The program also follows the stars, both in and out of costume, while they interact with members of the community. The show carries a mature audience rating because of strong language and some discussions of suicide.
According to a source with knowledge, the opposition to the event was spearheaded by Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, who said the program was not appropriate for public property.
“I’ve watched the show now, and those shows are definitely not family-friendly. Do we not have any legal obligation to protect children as this is city property?” Tanner wrote in a May 27 text message to other council members.
“Unless the production violates a law, I think their right to use the park is protected under the First Amendment,” Lenhard replied.
Councilman Jimmie Hughes asked if there were any requirements or guidelines for adult-themed productions, while Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin voiced support for the show.
“This is a great opportunity to let the queer members of our city know we love them and we value them. (You don’t have to like or agree with drag to do this),” Larkin replied.
‘A First Amendment right to use Town Square’
Mayor Michele Randall, who was also in the group text, shut down the discussion “due to the possibility of a gramma (sic) request,” a reference to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) that allows the public and media to obtain records and communications from government officials and agencies.
In other text messages, Tanner pushed to derail the show.
“Do we have any legal obligation to protect children as this is city property? Do you know when the public meeting will be when we have an official vote?” Tanner texted Mayor Randall on May 27.
“We will only have a public meeting if the council wants to revoke the permit,” Randall replied. ”Something is fishy as hell about how this went down,” Tanner texted back.
Tanner, who joined the City Council in January, has regularly embraced high-profile right-wing issues. Last year she organized an anti-vaccine mandate protest that drew a few hundred demonstrators. She has said in interviews she lost her job in the emergency room at a hospital for refusing to be vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I already had COVID, and all of the research had shown there was no reason for me to get a vaccine. I should not be mandated or forced to get something that I had natural immunity for,” Tanner said during an October interview on local radio.
On May 26, Tanner blasted Lenhard in a post on her Facebook page.
“WE THE PEOPLE should be running this city, NOT unelected bureaucrats. WE THE PEOPLE elect a legislative body to represent us,” Tanner wrote. “I do not trust any staff member who wouldn’t look at a permit application for an HBO TV-MA rated production being held at a children’s venue and think to themselves “hmm rather than revising contracts, breaking ordinances, and pushing this through in record time, maybe this should be a decision for ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES OF WE THE PEOPLE to make.”
The next day, May 27, with just 30 minutes’ notice, the City Council called an emergency closed-door meeting for 9:40 p.m., where sources say Lenhard was ordered to cancel the permit for the show.
The following day, Lenhard sent an email, obtained by The Tribune, to council members saying he was “unable to fulfill the assignment given to me last night” to cancel a rental agreement with the show’s producers because it could lead to a costly lawsuit.
“I realize allowing this event to take place on City property may generate criticism from some members of our community. This is a tough spot to be in. Regardless, I believe they have a First Amendment right to use Town Square and to deny them would be discriminatory. I cannot knowingly act in a way that could bring liability to our organization, nor can I ask my staff to do it,” Lenhard wrote.
In that same email, Lenhard, who was hired in 2018 after serving seven years as the city manager of Clearfield, added he believed the remaining outstanding permits for the show should be approved. Two days later, on May 31, Lenhard emailed the council he had done so.
The City Council used to review every special event permit for St. George, now a city of nearly 100,000 residents, but the process was time-consuming. In 2015, the City Council enacted a new ordinance that made it easier to issue permits for events by giving city staff more leeway in the approval process.
The show comes, and so do threats
Emails show discussions about taking a proactive approach in case counterprotesters showed up. The number of bike patrol officers downtown was increased to monitor any criminal behavior by citizens.
“Remember, they have their freedom of speech as well, but we want to ensure a safe venue for the event,” Captain Curtis Spragg wrote on May 31.
There were threats, too.
On the day of the show, St. George police alerted leaders of other city departments about an anonymous message that implied violence was possible.
“I hope things like this become mass casualty events because that’s what it’s going to take to purge this sickness. Keep pushing your perversions,” the anonymous email read.
In the days before the show, the creators of “We’re Here” took steps to highlight the difficulties they faced while filming.
“The challenges we have faced in St. George reveal the hidden forces that don’t want LGBTQ people to be visible, to gather and celebrate,” Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren said in a statement.
Production of the show in and around St. George took place as scheduled, but there were a few hiccups. On May 28, the cast and crew were filming near the splash pad on Main Street. That prompted at least one call to law enforcement that left Police Chief Kyle Whitehead scratching his head.
“I’m still waiting for some more information, but the initial call was that 100 drag queens showed up on buses wearing masks and were chasing kids at the splash pad. Supposedly there was a production company following them around,” Whitehead texted Lenhard.
“Okay, this was blown way out of proportion,” Lenhard replied.
“Happy to hear that,” Whitehead responded.
Approximately 2,000 people attended the all-ages show at Town Square that capped several days of filming. Production concluded without incident.
‘We would have lost the lawsuit’
Although the show came and went without incident, ire from the public and members of the City Council did not end. Emails to council members used the anti-transgender rhetoric and referenced the “groomer” panic prevalent in conservative news outlets and social media.
“Amazing that this event was allowed to take place in St. George. What’s next? Pedifiles (sic) United? These groups are gunning for our children,” one email read.
“It disappoints me that our area is in the sights of the agenda-driven psychopaths that are destroying everything good in our society,” read another.
Even though production of the show wrapped and moved on, the fallout continued.
On June 15, Mayor Randall responded to an email asking why the permits were not canceled.
“HBO had lawyered up, and they were ready to take us to court if the permit was denied. Their attorney was actually at our city council meeting the Thursday night before the show. We would have lost the lawsuit. A public entity cannot discriminate against anyone renting our facilities based on content,” Randall wrote.
She also said her son attended the show “as an undercover detective” and did not witness anything objectionable.
On July 14, it all came to a head.
At the end of the regularly-scheduled City Council meeting, members moved into a closed-door session away from the public. According to sources with knowledge, the council and mayor held an informal vote on Lenhard’s future employment with the city, prompted by his decision to approve the permits for the drag show. That vote came out against Lenhard.
What happened in that meeting did not remain secret.
An anonymous letter
On July 27, an anonymous five-page letter arrived, scolding City Council members for focusing on culture war issues and seemingly containing details of what happened in the July 14 meeting.
“We understand the approval of a special event permit for the HBO drag show ‘We’re Here’ is the source of the above closed session, and City Manager Adam Lenhard’s proposed removal from city employment is currently on the table,” the unsigned letter said. “The plans to remove, for questionable, if not illegal reasons, a seasoned city manager, at this time, are ludicrous.”
That same day, Lenhard sent an email to the City Council and mayor denying any connection to the anonymous letter, calling it “cowardly.”
“I emphatically state that I have nothing to do with it. There are references to my employment throughout, including mentions of closed meetings and the We’re Here permit. I have and will continue to maintain the confidentiality of those conversations,” Lenhard wrote.
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS,” Lenhard added for emphasis.
Mayor Randall replied in an email to Lenhard that she believed him.
“It’s concerning to me closed meetings were mentioned,” Randall wrote.
That hasty decision to push Lenhard out has come at a cost to the city and its taxpayers.
A curious item — “Consider approval of a confidential settlement agreement” — popped up on the agenda for the Sept. 1, 2022, city council meeting. It was swiftly approved with no discussion or debate on a 4-1 vote. Tanner was the only council member voting no.
Sources tell The Tribune in the days after the July 14 vote, an investigation determined the city would likely lose in court if Lenhard decided to file a lawsuit. Instead, a mediator helped craft a settlement allowing Lenhard to resign so as not to damage future employment prospects.
“It is public record that I voted against a confidential settlement agreement. This vote was made with the best interest of the city and taxpayers in mind,” Tanner told The Tribune in a statement.
The Tribune attempted to obtain the terms of the separation agreement from St. George through an open records request. The city has refused to share that information, citing Utah statute protecting records that reveal settlement negotiations. It also denied the request because revealing the settlement would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.” The Tribune has appealed the denial.
While the exact dollar figure is unknown, sources with knowledge tell The Tribune the city will shell out six figures to settle with Lenhard.
Councilmembers would not comment on the settlement with Lenhard, stressing the terms of his separation are confidential.
“I’d love to tell you the whole story, but we agreed to a confidential settlement. I don’t know that there is that much to hide. You have to honor the agreement you made,” Hughes said Tuesday.
“While I can’t comment on anything to do with the settlement, I can say that I am so impressed with Adam Lenhard as a person, as a leader and as a city manager. He has been one of the most inspiring leaders I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with, and he will be greatly missed at the city,” Larkin said in a statement to The Tribune.
Mayor Randall said city officials initiated a nationwide search for Lenhard’s replacement on Oct. 20. St. George Community Development Director John Willis will serve as interim city manager until a permanent replacement is found.