Texts highlight drag show debate that led to St. George city manager's resignation

Newly released documents reveal St. George leaders' arguments over whether to allow a drag show to take place this summer, an issue at the heart of the city manager being asked to quit.

Newly released documents reveal St. George leaders' arguments over whether to allow a drag show to take place this summer, an issue at the heart of the city manager being asked to quit. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

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ST. GEORGE — Newly released documents reveal St. George leaders' arguments over whether to allow a drag show to take place this summer — an issue at the heart of the city manager being asked to quit, with a $625,000 incentive to prevent him from suing the city for breach of contract.

The event was part of HBO's "We're Here" drag show tour that visits smaller cities and towns across the U.S., particularly in the South and Southwest. The episode filmed in St. George on June 3 hasn't yet aired on television.

What happened?

When the St. George City Council got word the city's special events manager had signed off on the event to be held at the Town Square on Main Street — when City Manager Adam Lenhard hadn't yet issued the permit — members of the City Council shared their disapproval over text messages, which KSL.com received through a government records request.

Councilwoman Michelle Tanner questioned what time of day the drag show would be held and whether there would be "legal protection to protect children as this is city property." She likened the show to a "strip show" or nudist club.

Lenhard noted in a response to Tanner's questions that the show would hold one nighttime rehearsal, and the show would take place at 9 p.m. on a Friday night.

"Unless the production violates a law, I think their right to use the park is protected under the First Amendment. A private property owner could exclude anyone for any reason, but the government can't restrict their speech or expression on public property," Lenhard wrote, adding that he was told none of the participants in the drag show would be "nude or indecent."

In the same text thread, Councilman Jimmie Hughes expressed concerns about potential sexual innuendo that could be discussed during the drag show and asked whether the park was the "appropriate public venue" for it.

Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin suggested having the production enclose the area if the performers planned to discuss topics that would be considered appropriate for only mature audiences, but to "just let them film" if the content would be "OK for all audiences."

She described drag as expressive art, and urged the other leaders to hold it to the same standard as they would any art form.

Mayor Michele Randall noted the city's special event coordinator approved the drag show, and that it "did not violate" any of the checked boxes on the city's application forms.

Randall then suggested that the text thread should "stop due to the possibility" of someone filing a Government Records Access and Management Act request.

In a separate text conversation between Tanner and Lenhard, Tanner said that "overwhelmingly" people in the community "would agree that a drag show would be offensive and lack scientific values." She said "sexuality" would be the "whole theme" of the show.

Tanner contended that the HBO show is about "accepting their sexuality" and going to "conservative communities" to display it. The councilwoman questioned whether the city is prepared for lawsuits filed by parents whose children are exposed to it.

Lenhard said the constitutional right to free speech would likely trump other arguments against holding the event. But he suggested potentially asking the event organizers to place a sign warning passersby of mature content.

In other communications, Tanner said she believed the issue should be decided by the City Council rather than city staff members and again questioned why an event of its nature got approved without elected officials' input.

Another incident — the St. George Police Department sharing a "Happy Pride" month message on social media — triggered widespread attention to the drag show among residents, St. George News reported. The message incited criticism from some residents and praise from others, and word got out that the drag show could be canceled.

The night before the show, LGBTQ community members and advocates filled City Council chambers to plead for the show to be allowed to happen, the outlet reported.


Drag show takes place

Producers with the program applied to hold the event at the park on May 24 and received approval on May 31. The city issued a special event permit to the show on June 2, the day before the drag show was set to happen.

City code says applicants need to submit applications at least 45 days before the event. Tanner and others expressed concern about that timeframe not being followed.

But city records show several events over the past two years have been approved within one day of a business or organization applying, and some have taken several weeks to get approved.

Reasons a special event application can be denied, according to city code, include if the proposed special event "violates a law, ordinance, policy, procedure or regulation or poses a danger or threat to the public health, safety or welfare, or causes unreasonable inconvenience or cost to the public." The city can also deny special event permits if "the proposed special event is not consistent with the intended nature and use of the requested city property."

No specific circumstances or additional guidelines are detailed in city code.

The City Council ultimately told Lenhard to cancel a permit that had been issued for the drag show, but Lenhard allowed the show to proceed as he feared canceling it would lead to a discrimination lawsuit, St. George News reported.

City manager resigns with settlement

The City Council verbally told Lenhard it wanted to remove him from his position on July 14.

According to a confidential separation agreement, Lenhard believed he has a good faith basis for legal claims against St. George and wanted to resign rather than be removed from his position.

Although the city manager was an at-will employee, his contract with the city outlined the process the city would need to go through to terminate his employment as a political appointee. The City Council agreed in a majority vote to approve the separation agreement — which includes the sum Lenhard will receive — and it was signed by the mayor. Tanner voted against the settlement.

Outside attorneys advised the city to settle with Lenhard, rather than go to court, based on the terms of his contract.

"The city believes it is in its best interest to settle all legal claims (and) compensate Lenhard" in exchange for him promising not to sue the city, the agreement states.

The agreement, signed by Lenhard and city leaders, prohibits leaders and city workers with knowledge of the agreement from making "disparaging" comments about each other. If they do, Lenhard can demand $50,000 from the city for each occurrence, and the city could demand that same amount from Lenhard.

Lenhard will receive $625,000 from the city on Jan. 13, 2023 — $25,000 of which will come from the Utah Local Government Trust, and an additional $25,000 in severance pay.

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Ashley Imlay is an evening news manager for KSL.com. A lifelong Utahn, Ashley has also worked as a reporter for the Deseret News and is a graduate of Dixie State University.


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