Change may be coming to polygamous Utah town if sweep by non-FLDS candidates holds up

In this Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 photo, Donia Jessop holds her mayoral campaign sign outside her store in Colorado City, Ariz. Campaign signs are unusual in a town where elections have long been quietly decided behind the scenes, with hand-picked men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints running unopposed. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Hildale • In an election that mixed religion — or the lack thereof — and small town politics, Tuesday’s unofficial returns favored candidates who do not belong to a polygamous church.

Mayoral candidate Donia Jessop had a 25-vote lead out of 167 ballots cast in the night’s final tally. She ran against incumbent Mayor Philip Barlow.

But Hildale held a mail-in election, and final results won’t be known until an official canvass is completed in up to two weeks.

Hildale and adjacent Colorado City, Ariz., are the home of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Its members have controlled the municipal governments there since the border towns were incorporated in the mid-20th century.

JVar Dutson, left, and Donia Jessop celebrate after being ahead in early returns in the Nov. 7, 2017, Hildale municipal election. Dutson ran for City Council and Jessop ran for mayor. Garth Jessop, right, looks on. Photo by Nate Carlisle/The Salt Lake Tribune

People who have left the church, like Jessop, or never belonged to it have complained that city leaders have refused out of religious objections to work with a land trust overseen by a Utah judge, and have let streets and infrastructure deteriorate.

In recent years, two federal civil juries in Phoenix have found the towns discriminated against non-FLDS members, forcing Colorado City and its insurer to pay millions of dollars in settlements and legal fees. A federal judge has appointed monitors for both towns to observe municipal functions and report to him.

At a watch party at her home Tuesday that included her family and friends from the two towns, the Wasatch Front and Mexico, Jessop again warned that businesses will not move to Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek, unless they have secular governments.

“We‘ve been fighting this battle for a year, and we know now the real work begins,” Jessop said during what she dubbed a victory speech.

“Here‘s to change!” someone yelled as a toast as the Champagne flowed. Supporters raised their glasses and cups into the air.

Jessop and two City Council candidates seeking four-year terms, Maha Layton and Jared Nicol, were nominated in the spring at an unofficial convention that featured only non-FLDS candidates.

Layton and Nicol were ahead Tuesday night, too. So was another non-FLDS City Council candidate, JVar Dutson, who qualified for the ballot to fill out the remaining two years for a council member who quit.

If the results hold, all three will join two sitting members of the Hildale City Council.

Jessop, Layton, Nicol and Dutson have emphasized they aren’t opposed to the FLDS religion, just the way elected officials have run the towns.

The non-FLDS slate has received a boost by a change in Hildale demographics. As the land trust has subdivided properties and sold homes in recent years, more people who do not belong to the FLDS have moved into the community.

Colorado City has municipal elections in 2018.

Barlow works at a church-affiliated automotive business and is believed to be an FLDS member.

While Jessop listed spending $403.89 in her latest campaign finance report and put signs all over town, Barlow reported no expenditures and did no public campaigning.