28 May 2020

  • As churches reopen, is it safe for seniors to return to the pews?
    Doriena Lee poses for a portrait outside her apartment in Murray on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Lee said her faith has increased as she participates with her congregation virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Before I was so busy doing so many other things at church till I didn’t take the time to do the Bible study like I should or go to the prayer line like I should,” Lee said. “It’s helped me realize how important that is and not to be so busy doing other things that you don’t take time to do that.” | Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — Calvary Baptist Church means the world to Doriena Lee. But after two months of self-isolation, the 71-year-old has finally solved the riddle of technology.

    As one of many over age 65 who are high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, how eager is the Murray resident to return to the pews?

    “Part of me is anxious to get back and the other half is lazy. With the modern technologies, I’ve gotten used to staying at home,” Lee said. “But to be honest, I miss the fellowship, seeing one another, having lunch, talking. The physical contact is important.”

    She’s not the only senior citizen with mixed emotions.

    As churches of various faiths across Utah start to reopen, some congregations with senior members are longing to return while others are content to wait at home a little longer.

    Orion and Marge Sherwood, ages 89 and 90, are members of Centenary United Methodist Church. While spending the winter in Mesquite, Nevada, Orion suffered a mild heart attack. As he recovered, and with the spread of the coronavirus, the couple remained out of state but participated in Zoom and Facebook worship services. They look forward to attending church again.

    “As far as I’m concerned, if the churches can separate the seating and people wear masks, that should be adequate,” said Orion Sherwood, a lifelong Methodist. “Of course we will return.”

    Sylvia Allred, who just turned 81, can’t hardly wait to get back to Calvary Salt Lake. At this point, Pastor Jim Harris said the church is planning to hold its first Sunday worship service on June 7.

    “This one is anxious to get back to church,” Allred said. “I will be there because I’ve really missed it. I miss the association with the friends and good people I have there. I watch the service on the computer and it’s still good, but it’s not quite the same as being there. I’m not worried. I’m in good health and I only take one med.... Anyway, I am really looking forward to going back to church.”

    Kenneth Alvey, “going on 87,” is another member of the Calvary Salt Lake congregation and happy to see churches reopening. He misses his church family but is going to take a more conservative approach.

    “I think I’ll skip that first one and see how it goes,” he said.

    Lee seems to be of the same opinion.

    “F about going out, but when it’s really safe, we will be out in full force,” she said.

    Last week the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced plans for returning to Sunday meetings and activities. Pete and Linda Strickland, ages 77 and 78, of Syracuse, have managed well at home on their own during self-isolation. They’ve appreciated neighbors dropping by with treats to check on them and using technology hasn’t been a problem. The Stricklands look forward to meeting again with ward members and the “needed weekly uplift” of Sunday meetings, but will “use good judgment and err on the side of caution due to health concerns that are ever-present,” Linda Strickland said.

    “We do not want to live in fear or isolation but will move forward being careful,” she said.

    One upside for seniors staying home is use of digital tools to help stay connected with their church. For the most part, faith leaders say their older members are figuring it out.

    Pastor Steve Aeschbacher, interim senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, said everybody has been on a learning curve but he’s been surprised at how well seniors have embraced technology. Even those who were initially resistant decided to try it anyway and made it work. Many want to see online worship continue beyond the reopening.

    “That’s been encouraging,” the pastor said. “A lot of people want to make sure we continue even after coming together again. It’s been a surprising expansion of the ministry that we weren’t planning on.”

    But there are others who are still struggling. Lee told of one 83-year-old friend who can only make a call if the number is programmed into her phone.

    “She can’t dial out,” Lee said. “We still have people like that who aren’t ready to do any of the virtual stuff.”

    How do faith leaders feel about their senior members coming back to church?

    Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News
    Pastor Jim Harris, of Calvary Salt Lake, joins other believers from his West Jordan home for daily prayers and fellowship during a video conference held via Zoom on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Harris counted 36 remote participants on his laptop screen.

    Pastor Harris said Calvary Salt Lake is being cleaned and prepared to welcome everyone back on June 7.

    “What we’re hearing is they want to get back to church as soon as possible,” he said. “What we have found is a lot of them are, let’s say technologically challenged, and want to get back into real life church.... We’re taking all the necessary steps. We want to be safe and cautious, but the general feeling is they want to come back. It may be a different experience once we get here, but you’re part of the body, you’re here, it’s home.”

    Calvary Baptist and First Presbyterian have issued surveys to their congregations to gauge how people are feeling. At this point the Rev. Oscar T. Moses, pastor of Calvary Baptist, says it’s a mixed review. His own 82-year-old mother is in no hurry to jump back into the population.

    “They miss church but don’t want to put themselves at risk,” he said. “We make sure to give them a phone call. They are almost in tears because they are just so happy that someone from the church is thinking about them.”

    Pastor Aeschbacher hasn’t heard older folks clamoring to return, but more of the younger members are anxious to come back. But First Presbyterian is in no hurry, he said.

    “As we look at how we worship and what the kinds of guidelines the governor has put out, waiting a little bit longer seems to make more sense for us,” he said. “That’s why our leaders haven’t moved that fast. I think there are legitimate worries about how to do it safely.”

    Rabbi Samuel L. Spector, of Congregation Kol Ami, agrees.

    “There are some people who have asked if we can come back, but the majority of senior citizens have been appreciative of our efforts to keep them safe,” the rabbi wrote in an email. “Likewise, we are not resuming services until it is safe for everyone to attend.”

  • Tooele County Health Department orders closure of amphitheater that would host protest concert
    The Amphitheater at Studio Ranch in Tooele County is pictured from the air on Thursday, May 21, 2020. A controversial outdoor concert planned by Utah Business Revival was to be moved there from Kaysville. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

    GRANTSVILLE — The Tooele County Health Department issued an official notice of closure to a local amphitheater owner who planned to host a concert sponsored by activists opposed to pandemic-related restrictions.

    The department sent the notice to Jason Manning, owner of the Amphitheater at Studio Ranch, Wednesday after the Tooele Board of Health held an emergency meeting to discuss the concert.

    The planned concert violates the yellow guidelines issued by Gov. Gary Herbert to combat the spread of COVID-19, which currently prohibits mass gatherings.

    According to a press release from the health department, if Manning decides to hold the concert anyways, then he could face criminal charges under Utah law.

    “(The order) was expected,” Manning said. “I guess they don’t respect the Constitution.”

    He declined to comment on whether or not he would still host the concert.

    Eric Moutsos, founder of the Utah Business Revival and the concert sponsor, announced onFacebook Wednesday evening, “Despite some of the messages in the media, we are still a go for May 30th from 5-10 p.m. at Amphitheater at Studio Ranch. See you there.”

    In a video statement, Moutsos said, “I just wanted to do this quick update, in light of all of that, we are still a go. If you’re a small business, you’re invited to come for free. If you’re the general public, you’re invited to come for free. We’re really excited about it. We believe this is kind of a tipping point in America right now. And that our freedoms really are on the line.”

    He continued, “If you would have said this four months ago, listening to country music, trying to save businesses was going to be the most radical thing in the country, or at least in the state of Utah, nobody would have believed it. But here we are.”

    He ended saying masks were being donated, and they have medical, security, and hand-washing and hand sanitizing stations planned.

    “It’s going to be really great,” Moutsos said. “And so don’t be afraid, whatever you’re hearing in the media.... I believe this is about faith over fear.”

    Amy Bate, spokeswoman for the Tooele County Health Department, said the Board of Health, the health department and the county health officer are all in agreement “that this gentleman Jason Manning needed to not allow the concert to happen on his property or face criminal charges.”

    Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne said the county has been granted a temporary restraining order against the venue to restrict it from hosting the concert on that day. The order was issued by 3rd District Judge Dianna Gibson.

    “As of last night, the organizer and owner said they were going to continue with the concert. We’ve had conversations and it was nice, but it became clear that they were going to proceed with it anyway,” Milne said Wednesday.

    The concert was originally going to be held in Kaysville until residents and the city council pushed back, saying they didn’t feel like the community’s best interests were being considered when Mayor Katie Witt made the decision to allow it.

    Milne said he is sympathetic to Manning and Moutsos because he would love to see an event that would help small businesses in the county and give people a break from the pandemic.

    However, he stressed that he’d only be OK with it if the organizers went through the proper channels and processes to ensure the event could be held safely. He said the same rules apply to any event organizer — local or not.

    “There are a lot of factors that come into entertaining and playing host for a crowd that large,” Milne said. “The larger it becomes then the more folks need to be involved.”

  • Starting them young: Pre-K grads celebrate success
    Stella Fanco walks across the front to receive her graduation certificate as students from the Young Scholars Academy preschool and prekindergarten in Draper attend their graduation program on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

    Stella Fanco walks across the front to receive her graduation certificate as students from the Young Scholars Academy preschool and prekindergarten in Draper attend their graduation program on Wednesday. The academy traditionally holds its graduation in an elementary school auditorium, but to maintain social distancing the program took place in the school’s parking lot. The children got a chance during the event to perform numbers from their Spring Program, which had been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Utah Port Authority’s first meeting in months went uninterrupted — thanks to COVID-19
    Area at I-80 near 7200 South where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

    Port board Zoom meeting was controlled, but critics still aired ‘green washing’ grievances

    SALT LAKE CITY — The controversial Utah Inland Port Authority Board held its first meeting in nearly eight months on Wednesday — and it was the first meeting the board has had in almost a year without being disrupted by protesters.

    But that likely is only because the meeting was held virtually via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Still, the online board meeting, much of which was spent reviewing the port authority’s five-year strategic business plan released last week, attracted dozens of public listeners and commenters, many of which continue to lambaste the project as one that will only damage the Wasatch Front’s air and quality of life, even as supporters argue it will actually do the opposite.

    In many ways, Wednesday’s meeting featured rehashing of the now years-old debate over whether Utah should develop an inland port in the 16,000-acre jurisdiction the Utah Legislature established west of the Salt Lake City International Airport — as well as “satellite” locations in rural Utah — for a global logistics hub meant to maximize import and export connections via truck, train and air connections.

    Supporters, including the port authority’s executive director Jack Hedge and commissioners from rural Utah counties, argue the generational project could solidify Utah’s place in the global logistics system, create thousands of high-paying jobs, and help coordinate warehouse and distribution growth that’s already coming in a way that would ensure the Utah port has minimal impact on air quality, traffic and other environmental issues.

    But critics say the idea that a port authority could be sustainable or green in any way is bogus — and one that will ultimately be driven by money rather than with prioritization of Utahns’ health and the sensitive wetlands that serve as bird habitat near the Great Salt Lake.

    A vision laid out in the port authority’s strategic business plan includes lofty green goals to bring electric trucks and cargo equipment, commercial electric charging infrastructure, air quality monitoring, dust control, environmental preservation buffer zones, environmentally friendly building standards and other strategies to mitigate its impact.

    Hedge has said Utah is positioned to build what could be the first green port — unlike anything that currently exists in the world — and distinguish itself to be not only the “crossroads of the West” but the “crossroads of the world.”

    Because the five-year strategic plan — which was presented to board members in Wednesday’s meeting, with no objections voiced — acts as a “framework” for decision-making, according to Hedge, it includes no specifics of how those goals will be reached. The future of the port authority and its development is in the hands of the port board, which will ultimately decide what projects get approved and what their requirements or financial incentives will be.

    Lee Stanhope, of Salt Lake City, urged the port authority board to reject the business plan.

    “While it contains a lot of wonderful ideas of what a green or sustainable future can be, it consistently uses terms like ‘supports,’ ‘promotes,’ ‘advocates for’ and ‘coordinates with’ without actually requiring that any of these events occur,” he said.

    Sarah Buck was skeptical the port authority would actually get approval to use its revenue for sustainable programs.

    “Have you worked with our Legislature?” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of money for green incentives.”

    Other critics accused port authority officials of “green washing” the project, despite the fact it would be placed in a city among those that have the worst air quality in the country.

    “This is the worst place for an inland port, and trying to green wash it will not change it,” said Liz Buirley.

    But supporters including commissioners from rural areas like Carbon and Emery counties expressed support for the project moving forward, and eagerness to partner with the port authority to increase exports and jobs in their areas with “satellite” port locations.

    “We’re willing for it to be extremely large to take pressure off the Salt Lake Valley,” said Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud.

    While Wednesday’s meeting was void of disruptions, critics took their grievances to Twitter, where they vented about the board plowing ahead with its business despite technical difficulties that some public attendees experienced while trying to access the meeting.

    Port officials required each participant to be given permission to access the Zoom meeting, and they were required to register for the meeting before being sent a link to join. Some had difficulty accessing the link until port authority officials provided a password. For some, like Joel Ban, it took an hour and a half after the meeting started to get access.

    Ban, frustrated by the meeting, questioned whether it broke open meetings laws by not having an anchor location — but one of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive orders enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic allows public bodies to hold electronic meetings without having an anchor location.

    Tussy King, of Salt Lake, said she also had trouble accessing the Zoom link and was only able to gain access by phone, leaving her unable to see the presentation slides shown during the meeting.

    Scoffing at a port official emphasizing the port authority has an “open door policy” for public engagement, King called the authority a “farce” in a tweet.

    “Going ahead with Zoom meetings during the pandemic is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” she tweeted.

    Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a leader of the Stop the Polluting Port group, said she got a “barrage of messages” from people complaining they couldn’t get access to the meeting. She said she knew of at least 10 people who tried to listen to the meeting that weren’t able to.

    “So I hope you do better next time,” she told port officials.

    Seed, in an interview with Deseret News, called the online meeting “a very isolating experience” and “a truly terrible way to hold a public meeting.”

    However, many participants were able to access the meeting without issue.

    At one point, more than 130 people were logged on to attend, with 90 written comments submitted and 30 people who voiced their comments verbally, according to a tally by port officials.

    “We were pleased to see the level of participation tonight that was on par with our physical board meetings,” Hedge said in a statement after the meeting concluded Wednesday evening. “Whether it’s a physical or virtual meeting, we will always strive for a streamlined experience and will continue to improve that process.”

    The port board is scheduled to meet again June 22, where it is expected to take action on the strategic business plan.

  • Looming budget cuts in Utah target money for Hogle Zoo, EnergySolutions
    Energy Solutions crews work at the facility in Clive, Utah Aug. 19, 2011. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

    Painful recommendations forwarded Wednesday

    SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah lawmakers look to tighten their budget belts and put state spending on a strict fiscal diet amid the coronavirus pandemic, subsidies for the Hogle Zoo are under question as well as how much environmental regulatory programs can withstand the hemorrhaging.

    Members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee, like other committees in the Utah Legislature, were given the task to approve scenarios of spending cuts to agencies in their purview of 2%, 5% or as much as 10%.

    It wasn’t pretty when they met Wednesday for four hours, dissecting budget cut recommendations and haggling over who should bleed the most.

    Legislative fiscal analysts worked with agency directors to recommend cuts to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which will make the ultimate determination.

    One of the most dominating debates centered around Hogle Zoo, which receives $1.1 million in general fund money. If a 10% cut — the most extreme scenario — is imposed on the Utah Department of Natural Resources that provides the money to the zoo, it would prioritize other programs and reduce the zoo’s funding by $900,000.

    “To hit the zoo right now, that doesn’t feel right,” said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Utah.

    The zoo suffered during the shutdown during the height of its busiest season, Director Scott Burns told committee members.

    As an example, a comparison of the same 15-day period from 2020 to 2019 showed a $350,000 revenue loss, Burns said.

    Several committee members talked about the value of the zoo, saving it economically and preserving an asset for Utah.

    Others, however, said it wasn’t fair for the state to use general fund money to prop up the private operation at the expense of state services provided by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which could see employee losses.

    “I think this is about prioritization and fairness,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise.

    The agency’s predator control funding is taking a hit as well, as $500,000 in funding for invasive species is targeted under the recommendations.

    Brian Steed, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the zoo funding shouldn’t take priority over critical services his agency provides.

    “I am not trying to pick a fight with the zoo to be clear,” he said, responding to suggestions that the state parks division could take more cuts or wildlife resources could absorb more reductions in funding. “It seems like we are picking winners and losers at this point.”

    Committee members ultimately approved a recommendation of $494,800 in reduced funding for the zoo, digging up the money in bond repayments under obligation by the agency.

    The change was made with a motion by Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who said such drastic reductions should not be made at Hogle Zoo.

    “The zoo is a good resource,” he said, adding he didn’t want a “Jumanji effect” playing out in Salt Lake City with wild animals on the street should there be a closure.

    Committee members also grilled Scott Baird, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, on the proposal to meet budget reductions by reducing the state subsidy from the general fund to EnergySolutions by a little more than $600,000 in oversight fees.

    Two years ago, lawmakers passed a bill that waived those fees for oversight of low-level radioactive waste. The company continues to pay taxes on its operations related to environmental regulations.

    Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said the agency was relying on double taxation in this budget cutting effort and instead wants it to look internally to make additional cuts.

    “I am hesitant to go back and revisit this,” he said.

    Several Democratic members of the committee called the general fund subsidy to EnergySolutions a giveaway that should be revisited during the budget crisis.

    Ultimately, the committee voted to zap the proposal for EnergySolutions to pay a portion of the fees and instead make up the deficit by dipping into restricted funds in the agency.

  • Any cuts to state education budget ‘will be devastating to Utah students,’ UEA president warns
    Adobe Stock image

    A 10% cut in state funding would mean the loss of 97 full-time positions at Salt Lake Community College, president says

    SALT LAKE CITY — As legislative subcommittees began the thankless task of making cuts to state education base budgets Wednesday, they were reminded that the cuts don’t just affect programs, they impact people.

    Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, addressing the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, acknowledged that Utah lawmakers face many difficult decisions in the days ahead.

    “We ask that you keep in mind that any cuts to the public education budget will be devastating to Utah students,” she said.

    Legislative leaders have tasked appropriation subcommittees to develop scenarios under which base budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1 could be cut by 2%, 5% or 10%.

    In March, Utah educators celebrated one of the largest increases in the state’s public education budget in recent memory, “up nearly over 10% over the current year,” Matthews said.

    If that goes to the wayside and base budgets are also cut by 10%, it’s more like a 20% reduction than what educators believed had materialized in early March, she said.

    “We dispute, the UEA disputes, the assumption that the discussion must begin with budget reduction scenarios of 2% and 10% from the base budget. No cuts should be considered until revenue project projections are fully understood and every option for backfilling any budget shortfalls has been explored,” Matthews said.

    That includes bonding, using rainy day funds, Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, and nonlapsing balances.

    “Any other potential revenue sources or expense deferred must all be considered before making any cuts to public education,” she said.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has tested teachers “who adjusted on the fly” to teach using distance methods, which at the time was necessary “and provided a degree of continued learning for our students,” Matthews said.

    “But I think we all agree that it is in no way an adequate replacement for the daily personal interactions between students and a highly qualified educator in a well-resourced classroom,” she said.

    Matthews asked the subcommittee members to keep in mind that education employs tens of thousands of people in rural Utah and budget cuts would set back fragile rural economies that were struggling before the impacts of COVID-19.

    Moreover, budget cuts could also impact increased needs of schools as they plan to reopen this fall. More personnel will be needed if schools shift to split sessions or offer hybrid instruction.

    State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson cautioned against across-the-board cuts, which the agency experienced during the Great Recession.

    “It was definitely not fun but it was also not equitable when you just treat everything the same and just take a percentage off. That’s sort of the ‘easy button’ in terms of how to do work, but it’s not the best work for the field,” she said.

    This year, perhaps more so than any other in her career, Utah teachers deserve praise and raises, she said.

    Utah educators “really leaned into something brand new, learning at home. So we’re really trying to protect where we could. When you get into the numbers of $380 million, it’s pretty hard to hold programs and teachers harmless, for sure,” she said.

    While some committee members empathized with educators, others questioned how the Utah State Board of Education arrived at its recommendations for base budget cuts.

    House Majority Leader Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, questioned why the state school board recommended zero funding for some initiatives without explanation, such as the Teacher Student Success Act program, which was a legislative initiative.

    “When we choose to totally eliminate programs without explanation and we can’t justify why a particular program was totally eliminated and something else wasn’t, it just looks like favoritism. Or, it may look like something that the board or someone else just doesn’t like to administer or to oversee so this is a good time to clean house to get rid of things,” Gibson said.

    Dickson said she took “umbrage, a little bit, with this notion that there are things we just didn’t like so we got rid of them. It’s not the case at all.”

    After the difficult year that educators have experienced and in effort to protect jobs, the staff did its due diligence to make thoughtful recommendations for budget reductions.

    “I don’t want anyone out there to think anybody took this lightly... that we didn’t do our best effort. This was hard and nobody wanted to do it. We’re not picking on programs. We’re trying to preserve what is best for kiddos,” Dickson said.

    Wednesday afternoon, the Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee deliberated cuts to the base budget for the state’s higher education system.

    University and college presidents urged lawmakers to consider the implications of budget cuts, which could impact wrap-around services for first-generation college students, scholarships, matching funds for building projects, and career and job training that will help students gain or retain employment as the state and nation digs out of an economic downturn.

    Deep cuts would likely mean job cuts, said Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin. A proposed 10% funding cut would translate into a reduction of 97 full-time positions at the college, she said.

    “I’m worried with some of these larger cuts that it starts to eat into our student support services, and potentially faculty in some of those areas,” she said.

    University of Utah President Ruth Watkins told lawmakers as they contemplate $2 billion in cuts to the state’s $20 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, they need to consider revenue hits the university has already experienced due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    It received no revenue from NCAA basketball tournaments, likewise for canceled on-campus events, facility rentals, camps and museum admissions. Elective medical procedures were put on hold to ensure University of Utah Hospital could meet the needs of patients with COVID-19.

    Lesser cuts could be addressed through efficiencies and reducing travel, but “such a large part of our budget is people so there are implications there,” she said.

    Once cuts reach 5% and 10% “we’re talking about not only holding positions open but needing to reduce the workforce,” Watkins said.

    Less support for students will likely affect graduation rates and cuts to the university’s research engine will result in financial implications for the state.

    Moreover, ensuring that Utah universities and colleges can help students attain their education goals will help them obtain or retain employment over the long haul.

    “If you look at statistics on who has been reemployed of those who’ve been laid off, 50% of those who’ve been reemployed now have some post-baccalaureate credential,” she said.

  • Did Herbert ask candidate to drop out of the race and endorse his hand-picked successor? Nobody’s talking
    Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright makes a point during a gubernatorial debate at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — A report saying Gov. Gary Herbert asked former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, one of the four Republican candidates in next month’s gubernatorial primary race, to drop out and endorse his chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, has created a political stir.

    Neither the governor’s office nor Wright on Wednesday would confirm the report, which also said Wright was urged by Herbert to run instead against Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in 2022. The report cited “five separate sources with knowledge of those discussions” that were not named.

    Wright, along with former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, all gathered voter signatures to ensure a spot on the June 30 primary ballot. GOP delegates advanced Cox and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes to the ballot at their state party convention last month.

    Polls have shown Cox and Huntsman in the lead, followed by Hughes and then Wright. Herbert, who served as Huntsman’s lieutenant governor and became governor in 2009 when Huntsman stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China, is not seeking reelection.

    Steve Griffin, Deseret News
    Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, right, wear Utah-made masks with a depiction of Delicate Arch on them as they attend the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

    The governor’s chief of staff, Justin Harding, said he was the only authorized spokesman for the governor’s office on the issue and declined to answer questions about Herbert meeting with Wright.

    “I was not present for the discussions and don’t have any other details to add,” Harding said, referring to a statement that said the pair have “a close friendship that brings them together from time to time to discuss personal matters. The topics they might discuss as part of their social and private interactions are just that, private.”

    The statement said while the governor “is supporting his lieutenant governor in the June primary, he is appreciative of the field of candidates that have emerged to succeed him. He has profound respect for Thomas’ business acumen and the service he has rendered to the GOP, twice as a state party chairman and previously as our national committeeman.”

    Wright told the Deseret News he met with the governor but would not say what they talked about.

    “My conversation with the governor was private. And I intend to keep it private,” he said when asked whether the governor wanted him to leave the race and endorse Cox. “I have never considered dropping out of this race. I am in this race until the end. I believe there is a pathway to victory and we’re working hard to make that happen.”

    Asked if anyone had suggested he get out of the race, Wright paused, then said “he’s had private conversations about the race.” He offered a similar answer when asked if anyone had said he should endorse Cox and offered to help him run for another office if he dropped out.

    If voters wonder whether the reports about his discussions with Herbert are true, Wright said, “They should ask the sitting governor.”

    A close friend, he said, told him before he got in the race, “something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘You’re an outsider and you’re getting into an insider’s game and career politicians don’t like outsiders entering their arena unless it’s on their terms.’ I’m in this race to win it as the outsider. I don’t expect it to be easy.”

    Wright said if he becomes governor, “as an elected official I would not get involved in a race to elect my successor. As chairman I didn’t do that in the Utah Republican Party even though I was asked. I didn’t do it when they replaced me as national committeeman. I believe the voters should make their own decisions.”

    He said he “absolutely” would not attempt to talk someone into leaving a political race and endorsing another candidate while offering to help in a run for a different office. “I don’t think it’s ethical. I don’t think it’s honest. I don’t think it’s becoming of being an elected official.”

    Cox’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, declined to comment about the story.

    Hughes said in a statement to the Deseret News that Herbert “has been putting his thumb on the scale throughout the race. He calls the donors of other candidates, he anointed Spencer Cox the chair of the state’s COVID-19 task force, and now is trying to coax a candidate to drop out with promises of campaign support for the next U.S. Senate race.”

    He said, “Governors should keep their thumbs to themselves. It’s an open seat.”

    Huntsman told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Wednesday that “you read what’s out there and no, this is not normal behavior politically for a chief executive of the state and if what we are hearing is true — and I don’t want to jump to conclusions or any premature judgments — then it represents bad behavior.”

    That’s “the kind of behavior that the people of this state would never accept and the kind of thing that you see in other countries that we condemn. If there’s a quid pro quo involved in some aspect of it, then that’s not a good thing. But we’ll wait for the details to come out,” he said, adding he’s staying focused on the race.

    Lee endorsed Huntsman before the state party convention. The senator’s spokesman, Conn Carroll, had little to say when asked about the report. “That really sounds like a question for Herbert to answer,” Carroll said.

    Michael Jolley, a former Lee staffer who was a spokesman for former gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham, said he was told by someone close to the Wright campaign that the meetings took place as described. He said he heard about the meetings after Burningham was out of the race.

    “I was told that they met about two weeks ago and basically that the governor asked Thomas to drop out of the race and endorse Spencer Cox and encouraged him to run for Senate in 2022 and said that he could help get an endorsement of the next governor and also help rally the business community to his side,” Jolley said.

    He said he was told that Wright turned down the governor’s initial request but was summoned to a second meeting where he was again encouraged to drop out of the race.

    Jolley said he believes Herbert has the “greater responsibility” to clarify what actually happened as an elected official. Publisher LaVarr Webb said he stands by the story.

    “I think it was well-researched and with multiple sources. I have not heard any questions or complaints about it. I don’t think it’s unusual for a supporter of one candidate to talk to another candidate, so we’re not alleging anything nefarious there,” Webb said.

  • Woman says she rescued mother of puppies found on snowy mountain; rancher says she has his herd dog
    Three Great Pyrenees puppies are pictured after they were rescued on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. The puppies were found by snowmobilers east of Pineview Reservoir. Although the puppies were rescued and have been adopted, volunteers continue to search for their mother. | Greg Anderson, Deseret News

    AVON, Cache County — A northern Utah woman says she finally located an abandoned Great Pyrenees named “Grace” after searching for the dog since December in the Monte Cristo area of Cache County.

    However rancher Lane Jensen says the dog Shelly Rovira rescued is a case of mistaken identity, it’s his herd dog Fergie that was recently taken off his property near Avon. And he has asked the Cache County Sheriff’s Office to look into the matter.

    The story of Grace began in December when snowmobilers noticed a dog in the mountains with three puppies. On Dec. 1, Kat Perry and her boyfriend discovered the animals stranded in the Ant Flat area east of Pineview Reservoir. They called for help saving the dogs, prompting county search and rescue crews to bring a sled and carry the puppies to safety.

    The mother, however, ran away. Authorities believe she had left her sheepherder owners to give birth, and they left the dog behind while avoiding a snowstorm.

    Rovira has been looking for Grace since then.

    According to a post written by Rovira this week on the Facebook group Save Momma Dog the Great Pyrenees — “Grace,” two people noticed an “emaciated dog laying in a field next to a flock of sheep” Saturday while riding ATVs.

    Rovira wrote that she asked the people who found the dog to take her to its last known location, but they couldn’t find it. She went back up Sunday and made contact with the sheepherder.

    She wrote that the herder offered to take her and her friend to the dog after they showed him a picture. She then asked to buy the dog, and the herder said to come back Tuesday. Rovira wrote she couldn’t wait until then and offered $400 to buy the dog.

    According to her post, the herder then took her to the dog. She wrote that she slipped $400 in a backpack hanging in a nearby tree and took the dog with her.

    But Jensen says the dog Rovira took is actually his Akbash named Fergie and that Rovira took Fergie off his private property. He pointed out that Grace was originally found between Hardware Ranch and Monte Cristo — nearly 40 miles away from his land near Avon.

    “This last Friday we were moving sheep up on our property, and we took our female Akbash up to help watch the sheep,” Jensen said. “Then we got a call on Sunday from our herder who said he hadn’t seen the dog that day.”

    He said three of his lambs were killed by coyotes Sunday night because his sheepdog wasn’t there to protect them.

    Jensen said the herder doesn’t speak much English because he is from Peru. He said the herder told him that he tried to talk to Rovira and her friend but that he couldn’t quite understand them and didn’t know what they were saying.

    “I got the impression that he was intimidated by them,” Jensen said.

    Rovira said in a text message Wednesday that the herder spoke enough English to direct them to the dog.

    “As far as we know, we paid the man who said he owned the dog. We did everything we thought was legal and above board,” Rovira said. “If they choose to file charges, I guess they will have to prove ownership of the dog in court.”

    Yet Perry said the dog Rovira posted about is not the dog she found that snowy day in December.

    “I can honestly say that’s not Grace,” Perry said. “There’s no way you could pick Grace up like that and put her around your shoulders.”

    Perry also said the dog’s physical features didn’t match Grace’s. She said the dog’s head was too small and that she was taller and lankier than Grace.

    Rovira is confident the dog she has in her care is Grace, saying the dog had the same brown collar as the Pyrenees they found in December and that a veterinarian said it looked like the dog had puppies at some point.

    According to Jensen, he learned about Rovira’s Facebook post when the director of the Utah Wool Growers Association texted him the link to it because Jensen had reached out to the association when he realized his dog was missing. He said he immediately noticed his property — and dog — in the pictures that accompanied Rovira’s post.

    Jensen then reached out to Rovira saying she had his dog.

    “They kind of let us know they weren’t interested in talking to us or working with us,” he said.

    Now the matter may be in the hands of law enforcement.

    “The Cache County Sheriff’s Department has received a report of a stolen dog, and we are currently investigating it,” said Lt. Mikelshan Bartschi. “We are looking to corroborate and substantiate any claims by both parties. Because of the distance between them, it’s going to take some time to investigate.”

    He declined to comment further because it is an active investigation.