Public defender Amy Fowler and technology specialist Abe Smith, both 39, are squaring off in the contest for Salt Lake City’s District 7 City Council seat, as Lisa Adams steps down after one term.
They were the top two vote-getters in the Aug. 15 primary, with Fowler capturing 42 percent of the vote to Smith’s 22 percent.
Each candidate brings a host of talents from very different backgrounds. But both say their strengths are centered on communication and bridge building.
Fowler said, if elected, her top priorities would be getting services to homeless people, improving public transit and creating low-income housing.
Improving streets and storm drains tops Smith’s list, with homelessness and housing rounding out his top priorities.
As a public defender, Fowler comes face-to-face with homelessness every day. Many of her clients, she said, are homeless. She sees single moms and others who don’t fit the stereotype that often lumps individuals into one group.
“Rounding people up and closing things down is not the answer,” she said referring to Operation Rio Grande — the state and local crackdown on lawlessness in the downtown area and effort to provide services and health care to homeless Utahns.
Salt Lake City, in coordination with resource providers, should increase outreach to the homeless, who are now scattered throughout the city and county, Fowler said. “People can’t wait for resources.”
Operation Rio Grande has booked hundreds of people into jail — many without ID — only to release them, Fowler said. When they come out of jail, they still have no identification. But ID cards are a small and inexpensive thing that can change lives, she said.
An ID program would allow those homeless people to access birth certificates and Social Security numbers without which people cannot find employment or housing, Fowler said.
Smith, on the other hand, said he would work closely with county and state officials to ensure phases two and three of Operation Rio Grande are completed. That would include treatment facilities for people suffering from mental-health issues and drug and alcohol addiction.
But with that, law enforcement should guarantee that neighborhoods are safe, he said, referring to complaints of homeless people wandering about.
“Homelessness is not a crime,” he said. “But the city and the county must have the resources to carry out their mission.”
Many of the services the municipality must deliver are interrelated, Smith said, homelessness and housing included.
Salt Lake City’s vacancy rate is below 2 percent, making rents high. Many low-income workers are locked out of the market.
Smith said he would like to work with developers to find out how to provide incentives for them to build affordable and low-income housing.
Beyond that, Smith said, he would look outside the city for affordable land on which to build low-income housing. But he is quick to add that low-income housing should be integrated throughout the community.
“It’s a not a good idea to build a bunch of those units in one spot,” Smith said.
Fowler said all strategies for building affordable and low-income housing must be considered. She added that there must be a distinction between so-called affordable housing that starts at $800 to $900 per month, and low-income housing.
Many workers can’t afford $800 a month. “We are not providing low-income housing,” Fowler said.
How the municipality spurs that kind of development is the big question. And, Fowler said, the housing shortage needs urgent attention.
“Do we require developers to promise a certain number of [low-income] units in housing projects,” she said. “Or, the other idea is, do we create a fast track [project approval process] for developers so it costs less.”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the City Council in 2018 will be its ability to work with Mayor Jackie Biskupski. By all accounts, the relationship between the executive and legislative branches in the capital are in tatters.
Smith has worked in many countries around the world and said that despite challenges he always has been able to forge good partnerships.
“In my work life, I have been an executive and a board member. I understand the distinction,” he said. “The job of the council is to set priorities, approve a budget and hold the administration accountable.”
For her part, Fowler said that she works every day in her position as an attorney to bring people together.
“We are at such polar opposites and we’re not getting things done,” she said. “It’s about setting aside egos and working on problems. It’s not about us, it’s about the community.”
Rounding out Fowler’s top three priorities is improvement in public transit. It would benefit homeless people who must seek employment, but often don’t own cars. Beyond that, Fowler said, mass transit must be improved so that more people will use it to reduce pollution.
“We have to educate people that 55 percent of the particulates [pollution] are caused by cars,” she said.
Salt Lake City and UTA must increase bus routes and the frequency with which buses run. “We have to really increase the convenience,” she said. “We have to start there.”
Not unrelated to transportation is Smith’s priority of streets, storm drains and lighting throughout the city. While campaigning, Smith said, the number one thing on voters’ minds is streets.
It’s a continual challenge for Salt Lake City that hosts tens of thousands of commuters each day that don’t help pay for street maintenance. Further, Smith noted, many properties in the city are owned by the government or churches or other entities that don’t pay property tax.
“Local government is a service company for residents,” he said. “We need to make sure we are getting the [financial] support from the county and the state.”
Neither candidate has previously held elected office.