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

Published: Saturday, June 30 2012 5:57 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.

Ten months later, federal agents executed a search warrant at Richardson's home, part of an investigation into his associate Christopher Hales. Hales was ultimately sentenced to 90 months in federal prison for fraud. Richardson was named in court documents but was not charged with any crimes.

Johnson said his friend Richardson, the former mayor, agreedD with many residents that the city shouldn't be in the golf business.  But until the city can sell the property it's necessary to do the best with what they have.

The recreation center was commissioned, drawing a new round of debate and on Jan. 27, residents Paul Sorensen and Ken Severn filed 46 pages of allegations and supporting documents in 4th District Court, accusing Richardson and then-City Manager Konrad Hildebrandt of inappropriately moving $371,726 from city recreation funds to make the golf course appear profitable. They also accused the two city officials of unlawfully giving Hildebrandt a raise and withholding public records.

Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman ultimately said his office would not investigate the complaint against Richardson. He said the allegations were troubling, but did not constitute criminal activity.

Severn, a web developer, moved to Cedar Hills in 2006. He said he and his wife liked being closer to the mountains and were impressed with the neighborhood and people who lived there.

"We didn't know about all the trouble," Severn said.

During the 2009 election, Severn attended a "meet the candidates" event and was shocked when he saw Sorensen, a candidate for City Council, being verbally attacked by an incumbent for concerns he had raised in his campaign.

"Here was a current City Council man, red-faced, going after this guy running for City Council," Severn said.

From his experience that night, Severn found himself involved with a coalition of residents and former city officials who disagreed with actions taken by Cedar Hills leadership. That group evolved into the Cedar Hills Citizens for Responsible Government, which has campaigned vocally for the removal of Richardson as mayor, Hildebrandt as city manager, and has petitioned for greater access to public records.

"The city just ran me around," Severn said of his initial attempts to view city documents. "All we're really searching for is honesty in the government."

The coalition scored a number of victories. In May, Hildebrandt and two other city officials resigned from their posts and the City Council approved an external audit into the golf course's finances. The city was also encouraged by a state records official — and later ordered by the State Records Committee — to comply with public records requests submitted by the group.

That same month, Richardson was named in a federal complaint that accused him and Hales of soliciting more than $2 million in fraudulent investments.

Residents rallied in support of Richardson. At the City Council meeting when the external audit was approved, several community members stood to express their appreciation for the work being done by city leadership, frequently drawing applause from the 40 to 50 in attendance.

"It was great," city councilman Trent Augustus said. "I was definitely excited to see people come out."

The coalition's efforts then focused on records requests, following the council resignations. Richardson's resignation then followed a week ago.

The criminal charges are tied to an alleged equity skimming scheme. Neither Richardson nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.

Johnson said most friends and neighbors have expressed sympathy for Richardson and hope his legal troubles are worked out.

"He really does need to concentrate on taking care of his family," Johnson said. "If (resigning) is what is best for him, great."

Streeter said she gives Richardson the benefit of a doubt and added that it's important for people to remember that the charges against him are in no way related to his position as mayor or to the finances of the city.

"I don't think he's a devious person at all," she said. "He's just made some obviously poor decisions."

The task now falls to the City Council to appoint a new mayor. Martinez said the public has been notified that the position is open and the council will conduct interviews during a special council meeting July 19. She said she's looking for someone who is open minded and has goals for the city.

"We want to look at what their overall vision is for the community and that they're open to listening to residents," she said.

Augustus said he's looking for a candidate who is well-rounded and can work to bring residents together and heal the divisiveness in the community.

"We need somebody that is strong," he said. "We need someone who can get outside the box and think about what our community needs."

Augustus and Martinez both said there is an opportunity with the transition to have a fresh start, moving away from the years of controversy and contention.

"I hope this can give us an opportunity to actually step in and do our job," Augustus said. "We need to have all the residents come together."

Johnson echoed the sentiment, saying that rank-and-file Cedar Hills residents are weary of the incessant contention in everything from alleged scandals to bickering over commercial development and Sunday shopping regulations. More than anything, he said he hopes outsiders realize there's more to the community than political infighting.

"We're normal people and the government is 1 percent of our lives," he said. "Most of the time the people like each other and we raise our kids together and I couldn't imagine living in a better place in Utah."

Info Box

Cedar Hills timeline of events

 • May 8, 2001: Voters approve $7 million bond for golf course.

• Nov. 4, 2009: Eric Richardson defeats Jerry Dearinger in mayoral race.

• Sept. 2010: Federal agents search Richardson's home as part of an investigation into Christopher Hales.

• March 10, 2011: Residents file a petition over city's plans to build golf course recreation center.

• Nov. 1, 2011: Christopher Hales sentenced to 90 months in federal prison.

• Jan. 27, 2012: Paul Sorensen and Ken Severn file 46 pages of allegations against Richardson.

• Feb. 17, 2012: Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman says his office will not investigate the complaint against Richardson.

• May 1, 2012: City manager, city recorder and building and zoning officer resign from their positions.

• May 2, 2012: Richardson is accused in a federal complaint of soliciting more than $2 million in fraudulent investments.

• May 15, 2012: City Council approves an external audit into golf course finances.

• May 18, 2012: City officials agree to provide public records after meeting with State Records Ombudsman.

• June 15, 2012: State Records Committee orders city officials to comply with a public records request filed by Cedar Hills Citizens for Responsible Government.

 June 24, 2012: Richardson resigns without explanation.

 June 27, 2012: Richardson is charged with bank fraud.  

 

 

 

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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