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Fayette needs maturity among townspeople, skillful leadership to move on from Mellor episode

 

02-14-2019

 

It’s time for Fayette to move on from the Tracy Mellor episode. Doing so will require maturity and civility among townspeople, and skillful leadership in town government.

After reviewing the circumstances that made it possible for Tracy Mellor, the town clerk for nearly 20 years, to steal at least $300,000, the Utah state auditor suggested that perhaps Fayette should go out of business as a town.

We don’t agree. Fayette is a fairly compact residential development. It has a water system, streets, a cemetery, a city park, cityowned springs that are used for recreation and a town hall. Fayette is, in fact, a town and should continue to govern itself.

Last week, Brenda Leifson, who took office at the beginning of 2018, turned in her keys to city hall. We have to assume she resigned in response to pressure from behind the scenes. If so, it’s unfortunate.

Leifson, in fact, is the heroine of the whole Tracy Mellor episode. Probably a dozen people served as mayors or town board members between 2009 and 2017. In that time, no town offi cial detected the fact that Mellor was writing checks to her and her husband’s home-based business without the business doing anything for the town. None of those people figured out she was sometimes writing checks to herself for money she hadn’t earned.

It only took Leifson only a couple weeks after taking office to figure out Mellor was stealing, to confront her and to call in the Sheriff ’s Office. That led to Mellor being prosecuted, pleading guilty and being sentenced.

Ironically, a few months after Mellor was caught, members of the town board accused Leifson herself of financial impropriety. Th e Sheriff ’s Office launched another investigation.

The allegations against Leifson were a completely different breed of cat from Mellor’s behavior. It was alleged Leifson had given someone a deduction from his utility account in return for doing some work for the town. If that happened, it’s not the best way to pay someone. But the person who got the benefit did do work for the town.

There was also an allegation Leifson had spent too much on a hotel bill while attending a conference in behalf of town. Whether the bill was too high can be disputed, but if it was, the amount at stake was $100 or so.

Suffice it to say, the investigation of Leifson did not lead to any charges.

Since the state auditor’s report came out criticizing past town officials for insufficient oversight of town finances, some of those officials have jumped to their own defense.

At a meeting last week, a former mayor said a lot of state laws telling municipalities how to operate aren’t practical for a small town like Fayette where officials serve without compensation and where historically much of the work of the town has been done by volunteers.

We beg to differ. We don’t believe the requirements—such as posting minutes on the public notice website promptly after town board meetings and approving a register of expenses each month before checks are issued—are onerous. Rather, the laws are common sense. They are designed to prevent the very types of abuses Tracy Mellor has been found to have committed.

Fayette has followed many of the laws but been lax about some of them. Other towns in Sanpete with populations under 500, including Wales, Sterling and Mayfield, don’t seem to have problems complying with the laws.

Nonetheless, If Fayette has fallen short in the past, we say, “It’s water under the bridge.” It’s too late to point figures or make excuses. Th e agenda now must be to bring the town into compliance with all state requirements.

It seems apparent that some of the blaming, excuse-making and divisions that have come out at town board meetings and in the community have been a long familial lines. It hasn’t been the Hatfields and McCoys, but rather, some historic extended families defending their family members while other families have excoriated Mellor and her supporters.

With Leifson gone, Fayette needs a new mayor of the highest caliber, someone who can learn all about state law and best practices for running towns (the Utah League of Cities and Towns provides technical assistance and training), clean up the books, hire and oversee such employees (part-time or full- time) as the town can afford, and try to heal the social divisions.

There’s no reason Fayette can’t emerge from the Mellor fiasco in far better shape than in the past—even as a model small town in Utah.

And there’s some good news. The town can expect a windfall in the form of the $153,000 in restitution Mellor is required to pay, plus hopefully another $150,000 from insurance covering the rest of the money the state auditor’s office found she took. The new mayor, with the town board and citizens, gets to decide how to spend that money for the benefit of the town.