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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

'The Most Partisan Race I've Seen': Tensions On High At Kanab City Council Elections

Yard signs for Kanab City Council candidates are clustered on the main corner in town.
David Fuchs / KUER
Tuesday's Kanab City Council elections will decide whether incumbents Celeste Meyeres, Michael East and Arlon Chamberlain will be unseated by challengers Bart Battista and James Wendell Head.

KANAB — The charged atmosphere surrounding a proposed frac sand mine about 10 miles north of here has electrified Tuesday’s city council election, eliciting a level of divisiveness in public comments that some long-time residents have described as unprecedented.

The mining project — which is operated by Southern Red Sands, a start-up mining company backed by Gardner Company in Salt Lake City — has become a lightning rod in the community since the city council voted to sell water to the company in July. 

These tensions were recently on display in a letter sent late last week by Mike Noel, the Kane County Water Conservancy District executive director. In it, the former state lawmaker — who lives outside the city boundary and is not eligible to vote in this election — calls on Kanab’s conservatives voters to cast their ballots for a group of incumbents who have been referred to as the “trifecta:” Arlon Chamberlain, Michael East and Celeste Meyeres. 

Noel frames his rallying cry as a defense against a “special interest group pushing left-wing propaganda” and warns that without conservative support, Kanab “will see the continued encroachment of the left-wing and the erosion of conservative values.” 

The race for the three open city council seats is a nonpartisan election, and all of the candidates are registered Republicans, according to interviews and public records.

Still, not all of the city’s conservatives have found Noel’s call-to-arms persuasive.

“You don’t care what party the person’s from or even if they’re from a party,” said lifelong Kanab resident and former Kane County Attorney Kirk Heaton. “You want the person up there who’s going to make the best decisions for those local issues.”

A third-generation rancher, Heaton said city council elections should be focused on local issues — like water — and not national political questions over the Second Amendment and abortion, which Noel mentions in his letter.

“They’ve turned this into just the most partisan race I’ve seen,” he said, referring to Noel’s letter and series of Noel’s Facebook posts that documented Republican candidate Bart Battista’s past support of liberal politicians. 

Battista and the other challenger James Wendell Head both described the letter as misleading. 

Battista said his campaign has focused on the issues of economic development, affordable housing and education, adding that he views the letter as a “ham-handed attempt to influence” Kanab’s conservative-leaning voters that could potentially backfire at the polls.

“In general, the people that are in the middle don’t like mudslinging attempts like this,” he said. “And I don’t think it complies with a lot of the personal, moral codes or standards of conduct that they like to hold themselves and others to.”

Noel, however, sees this differently.

“I’m not trying to be divisive. I’m trying to be someone who points out factual information,” he said in an interview. “I have always been one to say what I believe, and I do not hold it back.”

When asked whether he believed partisan issues like gun control and abortion were city issues that were at stake in this election, Noel did not answer the question directly. Instead, he responded that he believes people should pick leaders who have strong values on the issues that are important to them. He said the right to bear arms and being pro-life are values that matter to Kanab’s citizens. 

Arlon Chamberlain, one of the incumbent candidates Noel endorsed, acknowledged that the former state representative has a tendency to “get in everybody’s faces” and cause unnecessary friction. But he said that’s not what’s happening here.

“I see it more as an encouragement to vote,” he said, adding that it’s a way to counterbalance the influence of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. 

The sanctuary, which Battista’s father co-founded, abuts the outer limits of Southern Red Sands’ mining claims. The county’s largest employer, it has described the proposed frac sand mine as an existential threat to its operation. 

Battista has raised more money than any other candidate, slightly under half of which has come from sanctuary executives or founders — most of whom he considers “like family.” He has said that he would recuse himself from voting on matters pertaining to Best Friends projects or his immediate family within city limits. 

The other two incumbent candidates, Michael East and Celeste Meyeres, did not respond to requests for comment.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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