The candidates for Moab mayor and Moab City Council gathered together for dinner at Zax on Election Night. David Olsen (left) is pictured with Emily Niehaus, Brian Ballard, Karen Guzman-Newton, Mike Duncan and Cassie Patterson. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Goodbye, Mayor Dave. Hello, Emily Niehaus.

A majority of city voters who cast their ballots in the 2017 general election chose Niehaus as their pick to replace outgoing Mayor Dave Sakrison, while keeping the five-member Moab City Council in progressives’ hands.

According to unofficial Nov. 7 election results from the Moab City Recorder’s Office, Niehaus won 962 votes in the two-way race for mayor, followed by former Moab City Community Development Director David Olsen, with 787 votes.

In the races for two open seats on the city council, Poison Spider Bicycles co-owner Karen Guzman-Newton won 1,096 votes and former Grand County Planning Commission member Duncan received 926 votes. Former Moab City Police officer Brian Ballard came in third with 731 votes, while Cassie Patterson received 421 votes.

For an odd-numbered year when there was not a high-profile presidential contest on the ballot, the election generated strong interest among local residents.

Just under three out of four active registered voters in the city limits – 1,783 out of 2,402 – cast their ballots, while overall voter turnout within Grand County reached almost 64 percent, with 3,122 of 4,838 ballots returned.

Countywide, a majority of voters went against the grain and cast their ballots for Democrat Dr. Kathie Allen in the 3rd Congressional District race to replace former GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who stepped down from his seat in June.

However, Republican front-runner John Curtis easily won the overall race in the GOP-friendly district, receiving well over twice as many votes as Allen. United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett, the son of the late GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, finished a distant third in Grand County and the overall district.

The 2017 general election marked the first time that the Grand County Clerk’s Office processed the city’s election results – mainly because the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office asked it to. Grand County Deputy Clerk Renee Baker said the election process went smoothly, with no reports of major problems.

“Vote-by-mail has proven at least that it will get people to return their ballots,” Baker said.

Although the county adopted a vote-by-mail system in 2014, and the city implemented the system this year, a handful of voters continue to show up in person at traditional polling places that no longer exist.

“We had just a few people go to their (onetime) polling places,” Baker said.

In those instances, she said, signs directed voters to the county clerk’s office.

For the city candidates themselves, the 2017 campaign turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive one, as each of them formed new friendships with their “opponents,” or deepened the ones they already had.

Just hours before the county clerk’s office began to tally the results, both mayoral candidates and all four city council candidates gathered for dinner at Zax Restaurant with their family members, friends and supporters.

Niehaus – the executive director of local nonprofit Community Rebuilds – said the social function happened spontaneously, and mirrored the positive spirit on the campaign trail over the course of the last few months.

“We’ve gotten to know one another, and as it turns out, we like one another,” she said.

As the various candidates and their families conversed with each other over dinner, Niehaus marveled at the sight.

“This is what I always hoped politics would be,” she said.

Olsen said the warm, welcoming and friendly tone at the gathering was typical throughout the 2017 election cycle.

“It’s been that way the whole campaign with the different candidates,” he said.

Speaking after the election results were announced, Ballard had no heartburn over the outcome.

“I don’t feel bad about the way this turned out because they’ve got a great heart,” he said.

Ballard predicts that Niehaus is going to do “great things” as the city’s next mayor, and he said he holds Duncan and Guzman-Newton in equally high regard.

The council race marked Patterson’s first run for office, and she said that getting to know the voters and the candidates was among the highlights of the experience.

Duncan estimated that he knocked on about 750 doors and ended up speaking with 350 to 400 people, from recent arrivals to residents who have been here for decades.

“I’ve had a good time,” he said.

Ballard relished the opportunity to reconnect with local residents, including people he hadn’t seen in years.

“I just thought it was a great thing because you get to know everyone and find out what the issues are,” he said.

Ballard has long been involved in local schools, but after his experiences on the campaign trail, he said he’s inspired to play a more active role in the community at large.

Like other first-time candidates for public office, Patterson said she learned a lot – about herself, and about the community. She said she’s not immediately sure what she might do moving forward, but she’s open to the possibility of serving on a local board.

Before the election results were officially announced, Olsen anticipated that the candidates will end up working with each other in some capacity – no matter who won.

“It’s a small community, and you have to work with everybody,” he said.

Unprompted, Guzman-Newton echoed Olsen’s remarks the next day.

“We all really were rooting for each other, and we felt that no matter who was elected, we would be able to work together and respect each other,” she said.

Guzman-Newton said she’s humbled by the support she received, telling the Moab Sun News that she never expected that level of encouragement.

As a longtime resident, she thinks that Moab is unique in the sense that residents who want to engage in the community can genuinely make a difference here.

“What I have seen is that when people voice their concerns and ideas, they’re actually listened to, which is really impressive, because it seems that in other communities, they get lost,” she said.

Now, as a council member-elect, Guzman-Newton said she wants to be a voice for the whole community – not just a particular special interest group.

“I speak as a business owner and I speak as a parent raising a child in our school system, and it’s important to me that people know they can come to me and I will listen,” she said.

Niehaus said she’s made a mental note of people who have come to her and said, “I have a problem.”

As mayor, she said, she hopes to involve those residents in the city’s decision-making process.

“Truly, the way that we’re going to solve issues with transparency and trust is with real-deal engagement,” Niehaus said.

Candidates on both sides say 2017 campaign was civil, friendly