Charles McCollum 2021

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Deep within the vote tallies from this month’s Cache County elections was a curious entry. A candidate for mayor in Amalga had just a single vote next to his name — and that name, interestingly, was Hispanic.

When I noticed this on election night while typing in results for a Herald Journal chart, I really wanted to find out more.

Although Hispanics now make up more than 11% of the Cache Valley population, and Logan voters notably elected Latino candidate Ernesto Lopez to the Municipal Council this year, seeing a non-Anglo name on a small-town Cache Valley ballot was a first for me. And the fact that this particular candidate, Julio Vega, made such a small blip on the radar screen seemed like fodder for a news article or column.

Among other things, I wondered whether Vega had campaigned at all, if residents in this town of 558 knew who he was, if he had any friends in town, if he was a member of the dominant religion. Or who knows, maybe behind this tiny ballot total was a situation like the one portrayed in the movie “The Milagro Beanfield War,” where a small-town Latino handyman finds himself dangerously at odds with big-money interests.

Turns out there is a story to tell in Amalga, and there is conflict at its core, but identifying the good guys and the bad guys might not be as easy as director Robert Redford made it look in his 1988 film.

I phoned Vega to talk about the election, but he wanted to meet in person, and he arrived at the Herald Journal office with a hand-written statement. Though I had no idea what to expect, I was surprised to see the statement accused the sitting mayor, David Wood, of conspiring with the town clerk to keep Vega’s name off the Amalga ballot. He further alleged “these actions are part of the corruption to manage the municipality for personal interests with the desire to enjoy the money of the town of Amalga.”

Evidence of this corruption, Vega went on to tell me, is the fact that Wood has hired his son to work part-time for the city and is also receiving pay beyond his mayor’s salary for doing the town’s mosquito spraying each summer.

Vega, I soon learned, is actually no newcomer to Amalga politics. He’s a two-term member of the Town Council, having run twice unopposed (Amalga often can’t field a full slate of candidates).

I phoned the mayor to get his side of the story, and it appears, at least as far as the ballot goes, that there is a major misunderstanding.

Wood told me that Vega missed the deadline to register as an official mayoral candidate but was able to later file paperwork as a write-in candidate. Vega doesn’t dispute he missed the deadline but thinks the law requires towns to list write-in candidates on their ballots and says his exclusion from Amalga’s 2021 ballot was an illegal ruse on the part of the town administration.

There is no question Vega is mistaken here. Although write-in candidates must register if they want their votes to be officially counted, there is no provision in Utah election code for including write-in candidates on the ballot. Frankly, that’s why they are called “write-ins.”

Either way, Vega still wants to draw attention to what he sees as a pattern of self-serving leadership in Amalga government.

Wood, who has served as Amalga’s mayor for 20 years, readily acknowledged hiring his son to do odd jobs for the town, as well as getting payments himself for mosquito spraying, but he said both of them receive much lower compensation than the town would have to pay for outside help.

“The problem is we can’t get anybody to come out here. If they come out, they want to charge us $100 an hour to do these things,” Wood said. “I know it’s kind of a nepotism type thing, but I talked to our attorney, and he said if you can find somebody to do these things, fine, but if you can’t there is no problem doing what we’re doing. Our town is so small and our budget’s not so high.”

Wood said his son receives roughly $10 an hour as a part-time employee, and he himself gets $25 twice a week through the summer to do the spraying. As mayor, he’s paid $600 per year.

Wood comes from a dairy family and has lived in Amalga his entire life. Now retired, he describes his work as mayor as simply a service endeavor.

“I can help the town out and do things, and I like to do it. It keeps me busy and that,” he said.

Vega has a much different backstory. He moved to Amalga in 1997 after emigrating from Peru and living for a time in Las Vegas, then Salt Lake City. He has held jobs at Schreiber’s, Pepperidge Farm and ICON, and he currently works as a mechanic at JBS Swift.

Vega said he moved to Cache Valley because it looked like “a safe and quiet place to live.”

To hear both Wood and Vega tell it, the two men have not visibly clashed at Town Council meetings, but they are clearly at odds over how the town is run.

Vega, as already pointed out here, says Wood is using the city for his own gain, and Wood says Vega’s presence on the council has become problematic because he rarely speaks and lately has missed meetings.

“He hardly ever comes to the meetings, and he doesn’t say anything,” Wood said. “You have to prod him into doing things. When we’re going to adjourn or do something else, I’ve said, ‘Julio, you need to at least make a motion or make a second,’ but he doesn’t say anything. He just sits there.”

Vega said he’s missed only three of the council’s nine meetings this year, the result of working night shifts, but moreover he contends his lack of input at council meetings has nothing to do with his right to serve.

“That’s not a good reason to deprive me of running,” he said, still insisting his name was improperly kept off the ballot.

So, yes, there did turn out to be an interesting story behind the Amalga election results.

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