Image by Joe Linton
A drawing depicts the 6th District Court Building, which may be built in Manti if the bond passed.

MANTI — Over the past 18 months, a proposal for Sanpete County to sponsor bonds for a new 6th District Court building has developed into one of the most contentious ballot issues in this rural county's memory.

The election is over, but the issue isn't resolved.

As of election night, the vote was 2,876 for the bonds and 2,870 against, just six votes difference. That left the result riding on about 240 absentee and provisional ballots. Sanpete County Clerk Sandy Neill said validation and tallying of those votes wouldn't be complete until the official canvass Nov. 20.

"I had a speech prepared if we won by a landslide or lost by a landslide, but I don't know now," said Sanpete County Commissioner Claudia Jarrett, who, with fellow county commissioners, has pushed for the project for two years. "The vote confirms the importance of the court facility on both sides of the issue."

Kay Crane, spokeswoman for Concerned Citizens of Sanpete County, a populist-type group that gathered signatures to put the court bonds on the ballot, said, "We want to wait and see what the official tally is and discuss possibilities with our supporters." Negative campaigning and personal attacks are rare in Sanpete County, where townspeople often know each other personally and where more than 90 percent of residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But a column by John Hales, managing editor of the Sanpete Messenger, saying that leaders of the Concerned Citizens were either intentionally misleading the public or didn't understand how government works triggered an angry response.

The Concerned Citizens attacked Hales not only in their final pre-election newspaper article but also ran radio ads saying Hales didn't seem to realize how many people supported their viewpoint.

In 2005, Sanpete County commissioners started talks with the Utah Judicial Council, the panel of judges that oversees the courts, about a partnership under which Sanpete County would issue revenue bonds to acquire land and build a facility. The original cost estimate was about $5.4 million. The current estimate is $7.5 million.

Under the plan, the lease payments from the court system would pay off the bonds. Once the court system occupied the building, it would cover maintenance and operation independently, including paying for utilities, repairs, janitorial costs and even security personnel.

Controversy arose during summer 2006 when Sanpete County residents started to become aware of plans and learned that the proposed site was on one corner of the county fairgrounds — a few hundred yards from the Manti Temple, a public swimming pool and Manti High School.

During several emotional hearings, residents, school officials and law enforcement officers said if a court were located on the site, unsavory people who came to witness criminal trials could come in contact with young people at the pool and high school.

"This is a dangerous world," Rebecca Frischknecht, a parent, said at one hearing. "We don't want child predators looking at our kids and giving them drugs."

Still others opposed the project because it would take out part of the fairgrounds. Commissioners said they planned to move the fairgrounds footprint to county land north of the current site. But opponents said commissioners shouldn't move ahead with the court project until a tangible replacement plan was in place.

As the wrangling continued, some Concerned Citizen members started saying openly that they no longer trusted the county commissioners. They accused commissioners of failing to heed public input and of saying one thing while intending to do another.

Throughout the debate, commissioners denied ever hiding anything about the court project.

Ordinarily, revenue bonds do not require voter approval. But state law says that if 20 percent of active registered voters (voters who have voted within the past five years) sign a petition, the bonds must be submitted to voters.

Last April, the Concerned Citizens met that requirement. They needed 2,436 valid signatures to force a vote. They turned in 200 pages of signatures containing 2,682 names.

As the November election approached, the County Commission and Utah Judicial Council voted to change the site from the fairgrounds to property at the opposite end of Manti owned by the Division of Wildlife Resources.

But that didn't quiet the Concerned Citizens. In letters to the editor that took up to two pages of the Sanpete Messenger, some argued that if bonds were approved, commissioners would go back on their word and put the facility on the fairgrounds anyway.

The group also argued that the state should build its own building, rather than expecting the county to sponsor bonds. "It just doesn't make sense to us that if the state has funds to pay for that building, why can't they pay for it straight out, rather than going through us?" asked Concerned Citizens leader Kathy Frischknecht.

(Commissioners and court officials explained that lease money is already appropriated as part of the court system operating budget, whereas building a state building requires getting the project on the Utah State Building Board priority list and waiting years for it to rise to the top of the list.) During the fall campaign, mayors of all 13 municipalities in the county signed a letter supporting the court bonds. Local leaders ranging from Leonard Blackham, former state senator and now Utah commissioner of agriculture, to Sheriff Kevin Holman voiced radio ads urging voters to vote in favor of the bonds.

Even if the bonds pass, the vote will be so close that it won't give commissioners a convincing mandate. Some people have wondered if they'll still go ahead with the project.

The answer seems to be that if the commissioners were going to give up, they would have done so by now. "We're battered. We're bloodied," Commissioner Mark Anderson told the Ephraim City Council a few weeks before the election. But the commissioners were persisting, he said, because they believed the project was in the county's best interests.

In comments just after the election, Jarrett echoed those sentiments. "As important and committed as we are to the project, and because we really do believe this is an important building for the county, I think that if it is even a small margin, majority rules and we would want to move forward."