This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
On Jan. 27 in Salt Lake City, 3rd District Judge Richard McKelvie gathered in his courtroom various beneficiaries of the United Effort Plan, the state-run trust that owns many of the homes and much of the commercial property in the polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Lawyers for the UEP and the Utah Attorney General's Office were there, too. Lawyers for the Arizona Attorney General's Office listened on the telephone.
From the bench, McKelvie made his intent clear.
"It's time to begin generating a different direction for the court's involvement with respect to this case," the judge told everyone. "It has been pending in front of this court for over 10 years now."
That different direction has manifested itself in recent months. Decision-making has shifted from courtrooms and accounting offices in Salt Lake City to meeting rooms in Hildale and Colorado City, where a seven-person board made up of local residents has begun deciding how the UEP is operated.
Originally constituted to make decisions about who lives in the trust's 700 or so homes, the board this spring approved a settlement with former child bride Elissa Wall, giving her a mix of cash and property worth about $2.7 million. The UEP also has hired a local attorney, Jeff Barlow, as its the executive director.
Barlow, like all of the board members, is a beneficiary of the UEP, which has its roots in the faith that became the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Followers believed in a communal form of living. In the 1940s, members transferred properties and other assets into what became the UEP. They and their heirs are beneficiaries of the trust.
Utah seized that trust in 2005 over concerns that FLDS President Warren Jeffs was mismanaging it and putting people at risk of losing their homes.
A judge appointed Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan to operate the trust. But running the UEP has been trying. Jeffs forbid his followers from cooperating with Wisan or from paying a $100-a-month fee Wisan sought from residents. To this day, UEP staff still don't know who resides in some of its houses because the FLDS occupants won't communicate with them.
Meanwhile, information about what was happening in Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek, had to be relayed to Wisan 300 miles away in Salt Lake City. Decisions about how to spend money and sell trust assets had to be approved by 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg, also in Salt Lake City, who presided over the probate case that seized and reformed the UEP.
Administering has gotten easier as people have left Jeffs, and the UEP has won some victories in the courts, including a 2014 Utah Supreme Court decision that forced Hildale to subdivide town blocks that had been listed as lone parcels at the county recorder's office. That has allowed Wisan, and now the board, to divvy up homes to beneficiaries.
Deeds to about 50 homes have been given to beneficiaries who have paid what they owed in occupancy fees and paid some closing costs, typically amounting to less than $10,000 on homes that are worth 10 to 20 times that.
But problems remain, including the refusal of Jeffs followers to cooperate, and litigation over Colorado City's refusal to accept a subdivision plan. But McKelvie, who replaced Lindberg on the UEP probate case after she retired at the end of 2015, has decided the board will be the ones to tackle those issues. Wisan remains to handle accounting and consult for the board.
In a recent interview, board member president Don Timpson was complimentary of Lindberg and Wisan, saying the work they did helped create a board that could function on its own. But Timpson is grateful for McKelvie's desire to lessen his role.
"He's going to assume that the board's decision was correct unless someone enters in some objection to that," Timpson said.
Margaret Cooke, another board member, said it is not that Wisan did a bad job overseeing the UEP; he just didn't know the history of the community, its people and homes. When divvying up houses, the board is allowed to consider who built or improved them and what size home he or she needs now.
"We all built houses" in Short Creek, Cooke said. "We all know how we built them, why we built them."
Cooke said she doesn't know all the faiths her six fellow board members follow now. The UEP has not been returned to the people who put it at risk, she said; it has been returned to the people who built it.
"Warren [Jeffs] never put the assets that were in the trust into the trust," Cooke said.
Utah Assistant Attorney General David Wolf believes giving the board more power may reduce costs. In that January hearing, Wolf told McKelvie that attorneys had billed the UEP for $13.7 million from the time of the state takeover until March 2015.
Wolf was complimentary of the attorneys, saying the trust assets would have been depleted had they not defended the UEP from lawsuits, But he contended that the fees had accumulated because there was no one negotiating for lower rates or thinking twice about whether to pursue litigation, such as evictions on the people who hadn't paid the $100-a-month fees.
Wolf was hopeful the board would be thriftier.
"I think the power to hire and fire professionals who act on behalf of the board is critical moving forward," he told McKelvie.
UEP attorney Jeff Shields, in that January hearing, said he hoped that putting property in more private hands spurred home improvements and attracted new businesses in Short Creek. The board is capable of making decisions about selling or giving that land, Shields told McKelvie.
"My experience is that if you get local people that are involved in their community and care about what happens in their community, they're going to do a better job than anybody who's dissociated with them or physically removed," McKelvie said.
"You're a brilliant judge," Shields replied.