Gehrke: Practically and politically, Salt Lake City’s mayor had to sue over the inland port

Robert Gehrke

Of course Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has long planned to file a lawsuit challenging the inland port, and this week she finally did.

Both practically and politically it made sense. From the practical standpoint, the mayor really had to stand up for the city’s right to self-determination, to make decisions within its boundaries that affect its residents.

And politically, well, Biskupski is headed into an election year in which she is fighting for her job, and perhaps her biggest liability is that sprawling 38-square-mile plot of ground out by the airport. Nearly half of likely Salt Lake City voters opposed or strongly opposed the creation of the inland port, according to a Utah Policy poll last fall. And a Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows her behind former state Sen. Jim Dabakis.

It doesn’t take a team of political wizards to see how her opponents are going to try to pin the port on the mayor: Mayor Biskupski failed to protect the city and now we’re stuck with a lousy, air-polluting port.

With a crowded field that is likely to get more crowded if state Sen. Luz Escamilla jumps into the mix (she will decide after the legislative session, and my guess is she will enter the race) Biskupski had to exhaust every option.

And the clock was ticking for Biskupski to file her lawsuit.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski gives her State of the City address at East High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday Jan. 17, 2019.

HB433, sponsored by House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, revises the original port concept, most notably moving in the direction of a “hub-and-spoke” model, which would allow for satellite ports in rural areas and minimize the shipments of agricultural and fossil fuels to Salt Lake City.

Also, the bill originally would have prevented any city from going to court to challenge any decision by the port authority. Gibson walked that back a little bit, so now a city can only challenge if the city council and mayor are in agreement.

And, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that Salt Lake City’s mayor and council couldn’t agree on ordering a pizza these days.

The City Council already passed an ordinance prohibiting the mayor from using city resources to sue over the port — an ordinance she completely ignored, furthering the rift that divides the mayor and the council. That ongoing dispute started when the mayor threw a grenade into the original port talks with the Legislature and the governor — and the council tried to fill the void.

Again this session, the council worked with Gibson and ended up supporting HB433, which passed Wednesday morning — after the ban on lawsuits against the port board was stripped out in the Senate.

“I want to reach out a hand to all those people who are critics of the inland port and help address their concerns,” Gibson told me Tuesday. “But it’s difficult to work with people when their stance is ‘no inland port.’ ”

(By the way, how much fun must it be working in the Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office right now, when you’re representing both the mayor and council members, who could end up suing each other? Perhaps that’s why Margaret Plane, a universally respected fixture in the city attorney’s office, bailed for a job with Park City.)

The irony is: Biskupski isn’t opposed to building an inland port in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant — or at least she didn’t used to be. In 2017, it was a cornerstone of her economic development strategy.

“Salt Lake City is already the Crossroads of the West and a prime location for an inland port,” she said at the time, “but the northwest quadrant will catapult Salt Lake City’s economic place in the western half of the United States for the foreseeable future.”

Last year, when the bill creating the Inland Port Authority was making its way through the Legislature, one of the chief arguments against it was that the city was already headed down that very path. It just wasn’t fast enough for Gibson and then-House Speaker Greg Hughes.

The problem the mayor had — and it is a valid complaint — is that she didn’t want the state coming in and taking over, making land-use decisions, levying taxes and basically acting like a city.

Which goes to the heart of Biskupski’s lawsuit. The Utah Constitution includes a rarely-tested clause that prohibits the Legislature from granting the powers normally exercised by a city to a “special commission.” Does the Inland Port Authority fit the definition of a special commission? And if so, is the authority unconstitutional?

It really is a question the courts should decide. That’s what they’re there for. And now, with Biskupski’s lawsuit, maybe we will get an answer.