Cedar Hills residents look for healing and a fresh start following decade of controversy

Published: Saturday, June 30 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

CEDAR HILLS — The resignation of first-term mayor Eric Richardson and the subsequent criminal charges filed against him last week mark the end of another chapter in the personal story of a man, and the public story of a Wasatch front bedroom community steeped in controversy for the better part of a decade.

Brent Johnson, a friend and neighbor of Richardson, described the former mayor as a caring husband and father of four. As mayor, Richardson had an open door policy and was always patient with those who disagreed with him, Johnson said. At church, Richardson was the first to fill in as a children's Sunday school teacher, he said.

"I can't imagine a nicer person as far as friendliness and willingness to help," Johnson said.

For years, Richardson has been pressured on two fronts: He has seen his home searched by federal agents and his name listed in association with criminal financial practices. As mayor, Richardson inherited a controversial bond measure and weathered increasing scrutiny over his management of city finances.

A week ago his personal business life and public service life came to a head: On Sunday he resigned from his post as mayor without explanation. Days later, he was charged in federal court with one count of bank fraud, for which he faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. 

"Cedar Hills is a wonderful place," Richardson said in a statement released by the city. "I have enjoyed my association with the residents of Cedar Hills and with those with whom I have served."

City leaders acted quickly to install councilwoman Stephanie Martinez as Mayor Pro Tempore until a permanent replacement is named. 

The resignation is only the latest in a string of public controversies for the small Utah County community of less than 10,000 residents.

In 2001 — eight years before Richadrson was elected mayor — voters approved a $7 million bond to open a city-owned golf course. That bond passed with 56 percent of the vote and has defined the political discussion in Cedar Hills for more than a decade.

Despite being touted as a cash cow, the course has failed to earn a profit and has, in most years, hemorrhaged money. The bond was refinanced in 2006.

More recently, city leaders chose to build a recreation center on the property. Residents petitioned the construction of the recreation center, raising questions over its intended use and cost, but the decision ultimately moved forward.

More controversy surrounded the use of money from other city accounts to support the struggling golf course, a practice some city residents allege is outside the law.

"The golf course has just been ridiculous," said resident Jen Streeter. "No matter what we do, we still have to pay the bond."

Streeter, who moved to Cedar Hills in 1990, holds a pragmatic view of the golf course. The way she sees it, the bond costs her $10 each month — a trip to McDonald's, she says — and like it or not the city has an obligation to pay its debts. She also said that from the perspective of someone who moved to the community before the recent years of expansion and development, the golf course, parks and other new city features have been steps in the right direction.

"When I was here 20 years ago there was mostly weeds and sand," she said. "It looked horrible and everyone thought we were Okies out here. They have really beautified the city very nicely."

The battle over the golf course was well underway when Richardson arrived on the scene. During the 2009 election, incumbent mayor Michael McGee failed to advance out of a primary, leaving Richardson, who had served as a councilman and on the city's planning commission, in a face-off with Jerry Dearinger.

The golf course was a key issue in the election and Richardson ultimately walked away with a 257 vote victory.

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