With Utah center stage in a national inquiry about polygamy, members of the state's Legislature came to the heartland of plural marriage this week - and hardly mentioned the controversial sub-ject.
No one visited this polygamous community on the Utah/Arizona border, although Hildale town officials asked for a meeting with lawmakers to discuss access to natural gas - a crucial concern to them. Tours came within an hour's drive.Hildale officials told the Deseret News Thursday they need lawmakers' help; and they clearly are going to be disappointed if stood up during the Legislature's visit to southern Utah this week. The 5,000 residents here are Utahns too and want some attention from their elected representatives, a town leader said.
Instead, legislators squirmed, they grimaced. They wriggled away from questions about polygamy like kids on the last day of school. Normally chatty elected officials wanted to talk about anything but polygamy and its now well-publicized presence in southern Utah.
"It's just not good timing," one southern Utah lawmaker said privately. "It's just too touchy a subject. If there was anything we could do . . . it's just so complex."
Hildale Mayor Don Barlow went the extra mile, driving to Kanab to track down his elected representative, Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch.
Hatch agreed to pass out a flier that read: "Hildale invites you to tour the Hildale (power) Generation Facility." The flyer promised to familiarize lawmakers with the needs of Hildale City and industries and offered tours of local businesses.
If lawmakers had visited Hildale they'd have found friendly people, but an unusual landscape. There are huge, jerry-rigged houses and few people about in public, save a handful men in long-sleeved shirts and women in modest, floor-length dresses.
There is a relaxed attitude about the way of life; an attitude that makes it seem normal for a teenage-looking young woman to be breast-feeding her 4-week-old baby while working the phones at City Hall and greeting guests.
Hatch said he encouraged legislators to "stop by" Hildale on their way back home Friday.
By late Thursday, no one was taking him up on the offer. Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, who represents the area, said he couldn't make it this trip but would plan a visit soon.
While lawmakers held a town meeting in Kanab Thursday night, they didn't travel 50 miles west to Hildale. They did go 50 miles east to the town of Big Water in Kane County, where polygamist Alex Joseph, featured on numerous documentaries about the subject, lives with several wives.
But the new national monument, not problems with polygamy, was the topic there.
And many lawmakers had gone home by this time and interest had clearly waned.
So, instead, lawmakers rode horses, toured scenic Bryce Canyon, took ATV rides, toured local schools and were briefed on the happenings at the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. While they didn't make it to the Hildale electrical generation plant, they did tour a public power operation in Wayne County.
Jerry Barlow, son of Hildale's mayor and manager of the city's public power and water system, hoped for more.
Jerry Barlow and his colleagues realize polygamy is a hot topic.
Surely he understands the sensitivity of a legislative visit during an election year, a visitor asked. Jerry Barlow nodded, threw up his hands and laughed. But, he said, Hildale leaders have a city to run and want to get homes and businesses hooked up to cheap natural gas and off expensive electricity and even more expensive propane.
And Hildale deserves attention as much as anyone else.
"We are people of Hildale, we are people of Utah. We want our representatives to come down here and communicate with us," Barlow said. "It's only right."
In the 1998 session, the Legislature agreed to allow a small surcharge to be placed on everyone's gas bill to raise several million dollars to bring natural gas to Panguitch in remote Garfield County.
In a Tropic town meeting Wednesday night, Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said Wasatch Front lawmakers were willing to tax their own constituents for a service they weren't getting to help economic development in rural Utah.
Hildale officials are wondering if lawmakers will take their side against the huge Questar Corp. But will polygamy cloud that issue? Despite attention to the subject by national newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine, Hatch said no legislator had asked to meet with polygamists to discuss their lifestyles.
When legislators held a town meeting in St. George five years ago, apparently one lawmaker tour did visit some Hildale sites, said Hatch, who coordinated most of this week's trips.
Hildale is in Hatch's legislative district, and he said he campaigns there just like he does anywhere else. Most residents are "honest, hard-working people," he said. They tend to vote in a bloc and some are quite politically active.
He has tried to help on various issues through the years and is staying on top of Hildale's request to build its own natural gas distribution system within the city.
The town wants to run individual lines to its customers, buy the gas in bulk from Questar and sell it to homeowners, says Jerry Barlow. Questar has balked at the idea, in part, said Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, because to give up its monopoly distribution system could open the energy company to federal government controls.
Hildale officials say they shouldn't be penalized in getting cheap natural gas to their residents just because they are so far away.
They've already built a natural gas line from Hurricane and now use Questar gas to power the "twin city" power plant - which serves Hildale and its sister town, Colorado City, just across the Arizona border.
But, says Barlow, Questar won't allow the city fathers to run individual natural gas lines to each customer. "They want to do that themselves," he said. He maintains the city could do it cheaper and be more efficient than Questar. "They want to service everyone."
Hildale has already taken its case to the Public Service Commission. But Barlow wonders what will happen there. "If (the PSC) doesn't act, we are definitely going" to the Legislature. And he wanted a chance to present his case to lawmakers themselves while they were on their trip.
What Barlow doesn't say is that if Hildale can build its own natural gas distribution system in the city and resell the gas, the close-knit polygamist enclave won't have to deal with perhaps pesky questions by Questar and its employees - like who is guaranteeing natural gas payments, who stands behind the billings.
And Questar meter readers won't be walking around the sometimes enclosed homesteads reading meters, talking to residents and generally being where some of the polygamist families would prefer they aren't.
Those reasons may account for the unwillingness of Hildale leaders to allow Questar to follow its normal procedure of installing individual gas lines and selling the gas directly to the customers, said Questar spokesman Chad Jones. Those fears, however, are unjustified.
Questar has balked at allowing Hildale control over their gas service for the same reason they have not allowed other towns control, Jones said. Primarily, the impact on customers, as yet undetermined, could be substantial. Those impacts could range from rate hikes to loss of the company's regulation of natural gas service.
"We're not in the business of reselling gas," Jones said. "We're willing to offer the gas to Hildale like all other communities, but they are not interested in that."
The location of Hildale is not a concern for Questar either. The company, in fact, is expanding its service to other rural areas, such as Sevier County, he said.