Historic election next week in Bluff, county
by Zak Podmore
Bluff residents will head to the polls on Tuesday, June 26 to elect their first city council since voting to incorporate last year.
In San Juan County and across the State of Utah, voters will vote in a primary election that will help pare the list of candidates for the November general election.
The 2018 elections will feature races for all three Commission seats and all five school board seats after a federal judge recently redrew election district boundaries.
The San Juan County Clerk’s office has received nearly 800 election registrations, with the vast majority being duplicate registrations. They report that the new registrations are helpful to ensure that mailing addresses are correct.
The clerk’s office encourages any citizen who hasn’t received a ballot to contact the office immediately.
Six candidates are running for four council seats, and will serve either 1.5-year or 3.5-year terms.
Yard signs have sprouted up across town in support of the two mayoral hopefuls, Marcia Hadenfeldt and write-in candidate Ann Leppanen.
The election is the result of more than two years of work by a group of citizens who formed an incorporation committee in 2016. After collecting signatures from 20 percent of registered voters and from property owners representing 20 percent of the assessed property value in the proposed town boundaries, the committee submitted a petition to the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office in 2017 to begin the incorporation process.
The Lt. Governor commissioned Bob Springmeyer of Bonneville Research, a Salt Lake City-based firm, to conduct a feasibility study. At a public meeting in August 2017, Springmeyer concluded that incorporation was feasible, meaning there will likely be “sufficient [tax] revenues if a town is formed to maintain current levels of service.”
On November 7, 2017, 80 percent of registered voters in Bluff turned out to approve incorporation by a 49-point margin, with 122 ballots cast.
Although Bluff is the county’s oldest settlement, the site of a large Ancestral Puebloan village nearly 1,000 years ago, and founded as Bluff City by the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers in 1880, it has remained an unincorporated service area except for a brief period in the 1970s.
In 1976, the San Juan County Commission approved the town’s incorporation after receiving petition signatures from 130 residents. A mayor and city council were elected, but in 1978 residents filed a disincorporation petition, alleging legal problems with the original incorporation process. Later that year, a district judge ordered the issue be put to vote and residents voted 67 to 44 to disincorporate.
Current incorporation supporters are confident that this time the effort will be more successful. Linda Sosa, former co-chair of the incorporation committee and current council candidate, said at a public meeting last year, “We set this up to be grassroots and inclusive. Fifty people joined committees in June 2016. The community involvement we’ve had has made this possible.”
More volunteer committees were organized in January to begin researching issues the council will face after candidates are elected, such as writing planning and zoning codes, managing roads, and providing services. The volunteers have met regularly for the last six months and will present their reports when the mayor and council take office in July.
Bluff’s approved city limits encompass 38.5 square miles and stretch from Recapture Wash to Comb Ridge and from the San Juan River to the Bluff Bench. Bluff is set to become the county’s largest municipality by footprint, and with only 265 residents, its smallest by population.
The city council will have six months to prepare before officially taking over management of the area at the beginning of 2019.
The incorporation effort has seen its share of criticism. In an October 2017 article in the San Juan Record, San Juan County Administrator Kelly Pehrson questioned whether the town would be able to afford the cost of providing services like road maintenance and law enforcement to such a large area. And Editor, Bill Boyle, spoke with anonymous Bluff residents who shared Pehrson’s skepticism.
Bonneville Research later disputed Pehrson’s conclusions, however, and stood behind its feasibility study. Springmeyer noted that Transient Room Tax (TRT) was not included in the report and that some tax information was confidential. The Bluff Service Area generates more TRT revenue than either Blanding or Monticello.
At a series of three recent public forums for Bluff City Council contenders, candidates largely agreed with each other on issues such as seeking an International Dark-Sky Association certification and cooperating with the county to provide city services.
Both mayoral hopefuls agree that Bluff Water Works, long a point of contention in town, should eventually be transitioned to city control. Leppanen said she would take steps to dissolve the water works immediately, while Hadenfeldt advocated for a more gradual transition.
Half the candidates are local business owners, including Hadenfeldt (Far Out Expeditions), Jennifer Davila (La Posada Pintada Inn), Luanne Hook (Recapture Lodge), and Amer Tumeh (Desert Rose).
The other four contenders – Leppanen, Jim Sayers, Brant Murray, and Linda Sosa – have experience working in local politics in Bluff and elsewhere. (Candidate profiles are on page 4 and 5.)
Leppanen, Murray, Sosa, and Hook were all members of the original incorporation committee.
Around 160 ballots were mailed in the Bluff election, but multiple Bluff residents did not receive their ballots earlier this month due to outdated mailing addresses.
Candidates encourage any registered voters who have yet to receive a ballot to contact San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson as soon as possible.
Voters can also register in-person on election day, June 26, at polling stations in Montezuma Creek, Monticello, Monument Valley, and Navajo Mountain.