The race to be the next mayor of Salt Lake City is down to two candidates — city Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla.
In part 2 of this month’s “Trib Talk” podcast, Escamilla describes her vision for a city that supports, and is supported by, the entire state, that invests in education beyond the traditional K-12 system, and that makes it easier for residents to engage with, and get help from, their government.
A transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, is included below. To listen to the full interview, click the player above or search for “Trib Talk” on SoundCloud, iTunes and Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify and other major podcast platforms. A transcript of Part 1, with city Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, can be found here.
Benjamin Wood: I’m Benjamin Wood and today I’m at the Mestizo Coffee House with Senator Luz Escamilla, who is running to be the next mayor of Salt Lake City. senator, thanks for sitting down with us today.
Luz Escamilla: Thank you for the invitation.
BW: Now you chose our location. Any reason in particular that you chose Mestizo?
LE: I love Mestizo for a couple of reasons. They have the best hot cocoa. I happen to think it’s pretty different from other coffee shops. It’s one of the very few coffee places and coffee shops west of I-15 and it’s here in my district, my Senate district west of I-15 and on the west side of Salt Lake City.
But it also has a lot of meaning to the minority communities and underserved communities. One, it’s run by Latinos in this part of town and it’s obviously locally owned and run by, really, some pillars in our community. But it also has this other component. It runs a lot of art and you can see that it invites a lot of local artists, young local artists to put up some of their art to showcase them. And it also has a piece, which is a nonprofit arm, that is promoting civic engagement and participation in arts and civic community engagement pieces.
There’s a lot of programs that are run from here that engages young people from West High [School] to go and participate in the Capitol and get engaged on issues related to the state Legislature. We have a lot of community meetings here. We have a lot of young people that see this as a place that’s safe for them and they can then help them get engaged at a mostly state legislative level and then I welcome them doing the session where I don’t have a lot of time to visit coffee shops. They come to the Capitol. So it’s a great place that’s promoting civic engagement. We’re supporting a local business and also great organic food and the best hot cocoa, so it’s all in one.
BW: I did not know about the hot cocoa.
LE: Yeah try it, it’s delicious.
BW: I will for sure. And you mentioned this is in your Senate district. Now remind me how long have you been representing west side Salt Lake City in the Senate?
LE: This is my 11th year in the state Legislature. I got elected in 2008 and [have] been re-elected three times and [am now] serving my third term. And I I love it. It’s been a great experience. The connection with this constituency has been great and it was kind of like a natural piece to go to the mayor’s office.
BW: That was my next question. Why make the move? Why switch?
LE: I love what I do. I love the legislative process. I have a Master’s in Public Administration and an emphasis in public policy. I’m a very data-geek type of person. I love policy, I love to get into the details of data, evidence-based best practices. But part of that natural process was to really want to see more local impact and really see some of the legislative, good public policy pieces that I’ve worked on, how does it get implemented in local government?
I think there is an opportunity to unite Salt Lake City, to have a Salt Lake City that’s for all residents. As a resident of the west side and a Rose Park resident, I’m excited for the opportunity to bring them together, to bring east and west, north and south together. And I believe with my experience serving a very underserved community, which is the west side of Salt Lake City, I believe I can bring a different perspective. When we talk about a Salt Lake City that’s for all, that’s for everyone, but also Salt Lake City that’s sustainable, a great opportunity to have that sustainability translate to quality of life, translate to education, translate to infrastructure, housing, air quality and environmental issues for all Salt Lake City.
I feel like Salt Lake City is at a crossroads right now. We are at a great place but our growing pains can be painful, and I think we need some type of leadership that really brings consensus and helps build bridges instead of dividing, building bridges and collaboration. Salt Lake City needs to collaborate. We’re a strong capital city, we can be even stronger if we have the right person leading the city.
BW: You mentioned a lot of topics that I want to circle back to. But first I want to ask about your background. What brought you to Salt Lake City, and what’s kept you here?
LE: I’m a transplant to Salt Lake City. I’m actually an immigrant to this great nation. I was born and raised in Mexico and have parents who love education, they’re both educators themselves and were professors — they retired as professors from universities in Mexico — engineers by trade.
My dad worked in the private sector for a long period of time and was moving around based on work and so forth. [I have] one younger brother and we ended up living in Tijuana, which is a border city. If you’ve been in San Diego you probably know, or if you follow the Simpsons it says Tijuana is the best place on Earth. It’s a big city, 3 million people just in that city, and in the 1990s when I was going to high school we ended up in Tijuana. And my dad saw this opportunity to start attending high school in San Diego, so we used to cross the border every day to go to a private school in San Diego and learned this ability to live in two worlds.
It was a great opportunity. Living in a border town is a unique experience. When I graduated from high school in San Diego I was now making decisions for where to go from for college. I had great support from my parents and my dad started asking me to explore Utah. It was a very random place but he felt it was a safe place. He said ‘you know they have great schools, their universities are really good quality schools’. And he actually really liked BYU and my family were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I was like “Oh, I don’t know. I really like the University of Utah.” And the University [of Utah] has a great business program. So I got to make an agreement with my dad. I’ll move to Utah but I’ll go to the University of Utah. And I love Salt Lake City. We had been here visiting Salt Lake City before.
There’s really everything to love. I mean you have this amazing metropolitan area, like a metropolitan city. It’s a big city but you still have a sense of you’re in a small town. You still know people. It’s still small Salt Lake City at the end. There is still a sense of a family friendly city, but it’s a city for everyone. I mean there is a sense of diversity that you may not see in other parts of the state. So I felt safe. I was feeling that I was welcome, that didn’t matter if I had an accent or not or that I was coming from other places. Everyone was welcome if you were here to work and be a hard worker.
So that’s what I’ve done and it’s created a great opportunity for my family to raise my family here and I just love it. I haven’t been in any other place longer than Salt Lake City. And so this is home now and my husband and I have six children. Two of the adult kids are in Arizona but the other four live at home. We have teenagers, I have a 16-year-old that’s a junior at West High and my ninth grader Eileen goes to Roland Hall and she is a freshman. Then we have two little toddlers, a 4-year-old and a 3-year-old.
BW: OK I have several topical, policy questions here. The first one’s very important to me. I did an episode a while back talking about how much I hate the Salt Lake City flag. I’m curious where you stand on the idea of a potential redesign?
LE: We’ve had this conversation, actually, at the state Legislature with the Utah flag.
BW: It’s true. And I covered that very closely.
LE: You know people feel passionate about that topic.
LE: I think there’s a sense of history and there’s always history even if it’s maybe not the best design. I liked that historical context of why it’s there right now. I love the conversation, especially when you get to include the new pioneers and would love to engage in a conversation like that. But if the community comes to their senses and you know what. No we’d love it. I mean maybe when you go through this process of exploring why and really going back to the history if we all feel like that’s the best way to just keep it and keep on going I will also welcome that.
But if we need to change. I’m very open to change. My personality is very laid back. I’m very passionate about issues, but at the same time I understand that sometimes things take time. In public administration you learn about incrementalism. And in the state Legislature as a progressive Democrat, you learn about incrementalism because you have to practice that. It’s an idea that it takes sometimes years and steps and sometimes it’s very small change.
I will welcome the conversation. I know there has been conversation about both flags and I personally really like the state flag. There’s some pieces there that I would change but wouldn’t it be great if we have this conversation, but now we get a process that’s inclusive of all the new pioneers coming to Utah and everyone now that calls Salt Lake City home to be part of that conversation? But also making sure that we’re covering the context of the history and how we ended up with that flag.
BW: So you’re potentially leaving the state Senate for the mayor’s office and the Salt Lake City mayor is somewhat unique in state politics in that you’re the administrator of the state’s largest city — full of parks, schools, roads etc. But you’re also the political figurehead of a population of voters, many of whom are liberal in a state that’s conservative. Obviously, as mayor, you’d be wearing both hats, but if you were to pick one to really typify your personality, are you the administrator type or the political advocate type?
LE: Oh, wow, that’s a great question. I would say this, I recognize the difference between governing and the political component. I think there is a place for both and a time for both, where you have to stand strong. I think Salt Lake City, as a strong city mayor, requires and needs a good administrator. And I feel really strong that my background helps, with both my business degree and my MBA and my experience in the workforce managing different projects and teams and so forth. You need someone that understands how to manage the city, absolutely.
But at the same time, you’re right, there is a very particular leadership role in politics, not only statewide but nationally of having the blue dot in the red sea that you describe. You need someone that could stand up strong on issues that matter, that represents the values of Salt Lake City residents, who I believe are very unique and very sophisticated voters and constituents.
I love that about Salt Lake City. You can engage in a conversation, no matter where you are in the city, on issues that are truly policy oriented and strong political conversations in Salt Lake City. You don’t see in other places. Part of my Senate district represents a big portion of West Valley and I love that portion of West Valley. They’ve been great. I mean look at my numbers, in West Valley, are very strong. There are differences in those constituencies and I really love that.
For me is it has to be the balance of both. You need someone to govern correctly, to understand process, to understand the role of administrator and CEO of the city. But you also need that person that’s going to lead on difficult, tough and courageous conversations, when you have to stand against the majority, sometimes, in recognizing that there’s that dissonance, sometimes, between the state and the city.
Where I feel that’s my biggest strength is how do we collaborate, respecting our own space and the fact that we represent very progressive issues that we are maybe, sometimes, 10 years ahead in many of this conversations as a community. And we still have to live in the state and work with the state.
I feel I can get us there with the city now and saying, 'Look, Salt Lake City is a capital city. If Salt Lake City succeeds, the whole state is going to come up. It’s a natural thing. For many in the Legislature, including members in leadership, it is not their district, clearly, but wouldn’t it be great if we had this strong capital city?
If I’m the mayor, I want to feel that the state is behind the capital city and state understands that investment in the capital city brings very high [return on investment] at the end for economic development, for public health issues, for environmental issues. Because you’re on the front lines. We have districts that are serving very specific industries. We’ve talked about, potentially, high tech. We want to bring that silicon slopes component to Salt Lake City, but we also have the business district in downtown. We have Goldman Sachs, we have Zions Bank, big headquarters of big multinational companies that are here. And we have the international airport that welcomes the world every day.
You want a city that’s really reflective of who we are as a state and having a strong capital city means a lot.
BW: You mentioned education earlier and I live near one of your billboards that mentions education. Obviously we have a school district. It has its own leadership. The mayor’s role in education is sometimes a little hard to define. If elected, what could you do and what do you plan to do with education?
LE: Great question. I believe you’re talking about a billboard by a [political action committee] that’s supportive.
BW: Right. I didn’t read the fine print but I go past it every day.
LE: It does mention, and it’s supporting our position on education and it’s a great question. Especially the mayor of a city like Salt Lake City that has one school district, which is really interesting because you may have other instances where it may be divided.
BW: Right, where I grew up, it’s the county and the city. The doughnut hole system.
LE: Right, not here. We are in a very unique situation, so the critical part is as a city cannot succeed without being an education destination. And it doesn’t matter how small or how big the city is. But in a capital city, the pressure is even higher. We need to be an education destination city.
We are doing great in higher ed. We not only have Research Park [at the] University of Utah, we have three campuses of Salt Lake Community College — West Point, downtown and State Street 1700 South. We’re doing great on higher ed and then look at our K-12. Right?
So two things. One, I believe the role of the mayor is a role of leadership and collaboration between the governing board — in this case the Salt Lake City School Board — and the administration, working with the city council and their elected state legislators to advocate for better funding and better quality education coming from the state. I think if you have a mayor that can lead on those conversations, and lead as a team with all those people working together toward better advocacy for Salt Lake City, in terms of education, we could do better.
Then there’s another very key component. That is the Salt Lake City mayor has an ex-officio seat at the table when it comes to the [school] board. So it’s a nonvoting board member, but there is an opportunity to be there. The conversations that happen have a direct impact on public safety, have a direct impact on quality of life. After-school programs, that the city is very heavily involved in, I want to continue that, strengthen our Youth and Family Services Division — by the way, it’s a great program that started with previous mayors. That, I think, is one of the basic pieces why the city is strong, because it has a strong after-school program.
To me education means prenatal care, so education starts when the baby is not born yet and is still with a mom and parents and having adequate prenatal care. Zero to 3 — actually zero to 4 — because we don’t have universal preschool in our state. Cities have to be very creative on what to do with our preschoolers and our early childhood education. So the city may pick even a bigger role. And then your K-12 obviously is the school district, and then you have after-school programs, moving in that pipeline to higher education.
To me that mayor has a critical role, and being not only an advocate but a champion for our school district and making sure we have adequate funding from the state Legislature. And it’s not an easy task, but I think if we unite and if you have the mayor leading that coalition of the school board, the school administration, also superintendent, and then city council and the state legislators that represent our city, what a great team.
BW: You represent the west side. You live in the west side. There’s this recurring criticism of administrations past and present that suggests the west side is neglected or not treated the same as the east side. I’m curious if you share that criticism and — whether you do or don’t — if you feel that there are things specific to the west side, the east side that need to be done.
LE: Yeah, I think there is. There are absolutely differences and disparities and gaps, whether it’s achievement gap issues or food deserts, very clear on the west side. Food deserts meaning you don’t have places to find healthy, good food. We have more fast food restaurants per capita than the east side does. But that’s not what we want. Right? We want our children and our families to have access to good food and healthy food. So actually the Salt Lake City mayor’s office and sustainability [office] has been doing really good things addressing that.
There is more poverty on the west side. There are also more communities of color. There’s more refugee resettlement happening on the west side. What does that mean? It means that it’s not unique to Salt Lake City. Many big cities have the line, here we can call it I-15.
BW: Yeah, in our case there’s quite literally a line, both the railroad tracks and the freeway.
LE: Literally and line. We have a lot of open space on the west side, but is it adequately being taking care of? It’s the beautification component also? For example, the homelessness piece is now spreading and we’ve seen a lot in the North Temple [area] where we are, actually, that’s impacting a lot of businesses.
They’ve gone through a lot of transformation with the North Temple. This new development piece and now because of the homelessness issue, it has been impacted. I know that it is also on the other side. We need to acknowledge — and part of governing is recognizing — that there are gaps and disparities in certain areas and many of them will require more than one intervention and may require multiple interventions.
In order to bring equity — it is not about equality, but equity — may take more investment to get us there. And I obviously understand because I live here, this is my neighborhood. This is our community and where we spend most of our time, on the west side of Salt Lake City. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t have pockets of disparities also on the other parts of the city.
That’s why I talked about bringing together east, west, south and north and some of them are pretty unique. Where do we do growth if we talk about affordable housing? Affordable housing should be in the entire city, not only in certain parts of the city. How do we start talking and working with developers? And again, this collaborative effort where we see development that is also welcoming families. It is not only very small units. We need those small units, but we also need to have — whether it’s town homes or other type of housing — where you can still promote families.
We’re losing a lot of families, we’re losing a lot of children, which decreases our [per-student education funding]. That’s why we’re also closing a lot of schools. It’s finding that fine balance, but there is absolutely these disparities between east and west. And like you said, we have a real line that divides them with I-15 and the time is right, I think, to close, those disparities and we can do it. I think it’s a matter of having a conscious effort, being very intentional.
As a woman of color, I get the intentionality sometimes and I appreciate when people are committed to intentional change. And it takes effort. It takes putting your money where your mouth is. It’s about a show of resources, absolutely. But if we’re smart, most of those resources will bring a higher return on investment.
An example is Salt Lake City works directly with schools when it comes to resource officers. Those are the officers inside our schools. Safety in our schools is critical. No one is going to say it’s not an issue and it happens across the country. So this is not unique to Salt Lake. But we see a very high school-to-prison pipeline on the west side and many of our children are on the west side. At the same time, most of our kids on the west side, high school kids, have to actually be bused to the east side.
We don’t have a high school west of I-15. All of the three high schools are east of I-15. Right? So part of those pieces as we continue to plan our growth — and we want to be smart about our growth and sustainable — we have to take into consideration some of those gaps and some of those disparities and some of that divisiveness. How do we close that and how do we bring prosperity for all? And like I said it will take intentional policy and investment on areas where, historically, they’ve been left behind.
BW: You mentioned school resource officers, which bridges perfectly to my next question. Yeah. A few weeks ago before the primary I’d gone around interviewing west side residents asking what they were looking for in the next mayor. A lot of different things mentioned but probably the number one thing brought up was crime and public safety.
What is your read on the current level of crime in the city and what approaches would you like to see the city take to address it?
LE: I think Salt Lake City, because of our situation with homelessness — and the population that’s experiencing homelessness that ends up being victims of very high criminal activity — so many of the individuals who are experiencing homelessness are obviously not criminal. And they’re not part of the criminal element. But the criminal elements likes to prey on [them], those are easy targets, they are vulnerable, they’re in need.
Because of the Rio Grande Operation, that has spread and when you talk to the public, not only in the west side. Go anywhere in the city, the No. 1 issue. They don’t even sometimes call it homelessness, it’s public safety. We’re in a public safety crisis. We were at the Ballpark Community Council last week. Parents have to walk their kids half a block so they are not being harassed by whatever the situation is.
So I think the homelessness piece has created that piece and has elevated the visibility of a need for the data-driven, evidence-based intervention. That’s going to take a big portion of collaboration.
I’ve been in conversations with Chief Brown and Salt Lake Police Department — which is a huge workforce, it’s 500 officers and continues to grow and we need more — for them, when they show data no, it’s not like there’s huge increases on, specifically, crime. It’s just what the perception of the community is.
I’ll give an example. My family, we have little girls and we will take them out for a couple minutes to walk at the Jordan River very close to where I live. We don’t do that anymore. If my husband doesn’t go, we can’t go. We don’t feel safe, we don’t feel comfortable.
That’s one idea where if you asked me as a citizen, not as an elected official but just as a mom that lives in Rose Park? Yeah. That, suddenly now, is an issue that was not three years ago and it actually matches the time of the Rio Grande Operation.
It is something that is the No. 1 responsibility of the city, the public safety piece. And it’s something, I believe, where we intervene and the mayor has big responsibilities. One is what we’re doing with our our police department. What type of community policing are implementing and and trying to spread across the city.
Chief Brown is doing very innovative new innovative pieces with having his police officers in uniform interact with communities beyond the enforcement piece, actually being part of the community, actually coaching soccer and being in the soccer games or being where the moms are with their little toddlers and reading time at the library. It’s not only them in the capacity of just a police officer, but as a community member. I think that’s a great approach, because you have to continue to build relationships of trust with a community.
And it hasn’t been an easy couple of years for tensions between communities of color and law enforcement. We need to have those conversations too. We need to make sure that there is also accountability on the side of our law enforcement. How do we bring them together? Most of our police officers want to help and want to protect us, it’s why they’re doing that job. It’s not an easy job, it’s a very difficult job.
How we respond makes a difference. What type of constituent response and affairs makes a difference. Our plan is to bring navigators to city hall. People that can help me if I’ve never interacted in City Hall. I still feel uncomfortable, I don’t know where to go. What department is going to help me?
BW: Yeah it is a lovely building, but it’s easy to get lost.
LE: Correct, and even getting to City Hall is complicated. Where do I park? So can we have more city hall in neighborhoods? I want to do that. How does that look? It looks like specific dates for the month, we’re coming to different neighborhoods and bringing the directors of those departments to talk about services and how to interact with those departments.
It’s that interaction. It’s building relationships. It’s really, also, having a focus on customer service. In government, you sometimes feel like you’re asking for a favor and I shouldn’t be feeling like that. This is my government right? I pay my taxes and I expect to be served, because this is where I live. It’s my city.
I want residents of Salt Lake City to feel like if I call Salt Lake City Corporation, they’ll help me. If I call with a concern, at least I’ll know what happened with my concern when I call the police.
BW: Before we pivot too far, you spoke a little about homelessness and some of the challenges that have accompanied that. Specifically on that topic, what can the city do? How do we alleviate some of those concerns? How do we help people who currently don’t have anywhere to go?
LE: The first thing is when we talked about homelessness, we need to have a very clear understanding that there’s different communities and populations experiencing homelessness and that they are not all the same. They all share one thing in common, and it is they don’t have a place to sleep and call home.
How do we navigate those communities? You are going to have different levels of intervention. The key is Salt Lake City — obviously, because we’re here and we’re seeing them in our city — needs to collaborate, because this is not a city issue. It’s a statewide issue. It’s actually a national issue.
The state needs to support financially those interventions, because Salt Lake City doesn’t offer mental health and substance abuse [services]. The contribution then goes to the county as well. The state has done a lot of work. And as part of the state Legislature, I feel like we’ve been moving the needle to say, yes, this is a statewide issue.
Yes, we want to help but we need to find the good partners. We need to improve our relationship with the state. Everything from data collection, how we collect data, we were felling like tremendously. I think the model of having one site with twelve hundred beds — it wasn’t beds but places for people to sleep — for emergency sheltering, it doesn’t work.
BW: You prefer the dispersed model?
LE: Absolutely. The smaller places allows for better integration, for communities, for those individuals who feel that they’re part of a community. But remember, this is just a temporary situation. We need to then move them to housing where they are not in a temporary situation but really more permanent housing.
That process is going to be easier when you have a place of 250 beds or 250 people and you have a strong case management there helping them. They know them, it’s the same people helping them. With individuals that may not want to pursue a shelter because of trauma or because they’ve been in that situation for 10 years, it’s going to take us longer. And we’re going to have to, number one, build relationships.
There’s a trust issue and it’s going to take teams of serious case management, series individuals that understand peer-to-peer support that can provide assistance. And at the end it will pay off for us to invest at that level. Because those individuals are going to have a hard time, even after years of support, to be on their own. And they’re part of our community.
Many of them are veterans of war, and they’ve served our country. And now, because of situations they faced during their service, they are in that situation. What are we doing to provide adequate mental health? Even if we provide them housing, if they don’t have the ability to get the services it’s going to become a revolving door and they go back.
BW: I want to ask about air quality as well. We hear a lot about the city’s air quality, it’s among the worst in the nation. We see reports coming out about the adverse health effects from that. What can be done. How do we clean up the air in Salt Lake City?
LE: One is enforcement of current laws and what we do to have the city play a role in enforcement, because we do have good laws in our in our statute. I’ve passed legislation on that issue. So it’s the role of the city and I think there is room for work that we can do to do that.
The second part is what can we do in the city that is going to move the needle and that you can actually measure. Because people want to see outcomes. We want to talk about performance measurements that matter and mean something.
Vehicles obviously are the No. 1 polluter. So how do we reduce impact to air emissions. Well it’s going to be us having a better transportation system that really makes sense, that also connects east to west and you don’t have these huge gaps on the grid, for example, on the west side.
But some people are not going to be able to use public transportation as their means to get places. Not ever. It doesn’t fit with everyone. I think of some families in the west side, a single mom with three kids and they have to be at work at 8 in the morning, because they have two jobs at $10 an hour. But you need $23 [an hour] just to pay rent here in Salt Lake City.
For some of those parents, it may be really difficult to think they’re going to take three buses and then TRAX to get to work. But, if we promote where it works, let’s make it happen. There was a conversation across all the other individuals that were in the race talking about ‘Hey we should have a free pass.’ Yes, let’s explore that. We know when you have that as a tool people actually use them more.
BW: And do you mean free pass on bad air days? Free pass in the city core?
LE: No I would love to see it for the city. And again, it’s going to be in incremental steps because it’s a big budget item. You’re talking about $15 million. That’s a big chunk for Salt Lake City.
But again it’s intentional, and working with City Council how do we put that in our budget? It may just take steps. And actually the city, with their new public transit plan, their master transit plan that was unveiled and they’re barely implementing this August — it’s pretty good. I have to say, decent work. It was a collaboration. You can see UDOT, UTA, the city council, the mayor’s office, really good people at the table. They’re moving that needle, I’m excited.
More things that we can do in that area is one, try to get more funds from the state — through the Department of Transportation — on state roads that really fit our vision and the ideals of Sale Lake City. We need more active transportation. More lanes are not the problem. We know that more lanes will put more cars on the road. That’s not what we want.
We actually want to reduce — not only air quality and emissions — but congestion because it’s getting crowded. Can we get more support from the Department of Transportation? I think it’s doable. Because obviously you have to collaborate on that piece.
BW: Absent that, though, will we need more money from the local taxpayers.
LE: At this point I wouldn’t explore that part yet. I think that our taxpayers, including myself, we just did that new bond. I think we can do more with what we have. We just have to change, a little bit, some of the things that we’re on.
That will not be a place that I will go at this point. And obviously that’s a decision we have to make with the legislative branch of the city, which is the City Council. But I feel that there is a lot of opportunities and that’s why I was talking about incremental steps. Maybe we first target certain groups in our city to have access to some of those passes for the full year, or students, and getting there.
The other piece is buildings. Buildings are the second polluters.
LE: Pretty soon, yeah, as we move to more electric vehicles and so forth. In that sense, I think our opportunity there is great. We will be unveiling some of our environmental policies in the next week and a half and I’m excited for that. We have ways to incentivize, not only for new buildings, for current buildings.
How do we get to a place where we can, again, see that change and see that measurement is happening and we’re moving. I’m excited for that piece as well. So that’s another one. And then. With regards to the Inland Port — because it’s always fun to talk about the Inland Port...
BW: Let’s dive right in.
LE: That was your next question, I’m sure it was. I’m not going to get away without talking about the inland port, right?
The Inland Port is in my [Senate] district. Understand that where we’re located is a pretty ... the northwest quadrant is the most polluted area in the whole region. We have the worst air quality in the whole place.
I have asthma. I’ve developed asthma in the last four years. My 3-year-old has asthma and my dad passed away a year ago on a complication with his lungs because of the air quality. It is real. It’s not like people are making this up. It’s happening, it’s affecting people on a daily basis.
In this last year my asthma has been so bad and how people are living with this? Kids? I worry about my kids. So in the northwest quadrant we have to mitigate congestion.
I believe there’s data that says Salt Lake City has more semi-trucks than most areas in this region, and that’s a big problem. There’s a lot of emissions there. Our airport is also a big emitter. How are we going to mitigate that?
I think any development on the northwest quadrant — right now it’s called the inland port area and things change. But right now that’s what we have — how are we going to reduce that impact? I think we need to be very creative.
So how do we get as reduced emissions as possible? You electrify it as much as you can. And if part of that transportation piece in that corridor of I-80, let’s bring rail as much as electric rail. I think it’s possible. And again it’s having to mitigate impact, because impact will happen. It’s already there.
We need to be very careful that as the development takes place and we work with those developers — because as you know it’s private property. Development will happen. It’s an expensive place to develop but I’m sure the state prison has been very helpful to show how expensive it is, how not friendly it is to develop there. But it will develop, it’s mostly privately owned.
We need a city that’s on her toes, really, just checking and working and making sure that we mitigate as much of the impact in the inland port situation currently.
And I voted against all those bills. It’s my district. Those were my constituents that were so upset at the process and not only the impact but the process, the lack of transparency and involvement of a community that will have a direct impact on that.
The lawsuit — I know there is a hearing in mid-November. Let’s see what comes from there and if that is going to bring some resolution. But the city cannot not be part of how that’s developed. That smart growth, as much as we can, bring as much of renewable energy to that area as possible. But there will be an impact. It’s the worst location for that, really.
BW: I have two more questions. I wanted to ask you a City Hall question. When Mayor Biskupski was elected, she faced some criticism for the way that she turned over staff inside City Hall. She asked for the resignations of a large number of department heads and other bureaucratic officials.
Obviously we would expect some turnover. There were critics who felt that she had gone further than what you might expect. I’m curious what you made of that and what your approach will be to staffing government.
LE: I really need institutional knowledge and that’s critical. So I would not want to see all the department heads leave at all. And I’ve had a chance to talk to many of them, to meet with them. There’s great people working for Salt Lake City.
It’s is a big corporation, 3,000-plus people. And I’ve had a chance to talk to the ones that are picking up garbage to waste management, to water. Look at the variety of service. The arborist, I mean the trees? There’s a department for that, working also with those departments.
For me, personally, there should be some restructuring. I would love to see an administrative services department. My experience in government overall is administrative services tends to bring cohesiveness in the working between departments. So I’d like to explore that idea.
Your senior staff, those usually tend to be people that you get and it’s a new team. Many of them, actually, I’ve seen that they’re leaving city hall and they’re already getting other jobs. But in terms of department heads, I really hope to keep that institutional knowledge and work with them and understand better.
But there will be some restructuring of course. Even the organizational chart of the city itself beyond just the individuals that are in those positions, but also what the structure and the organizational chart looks like. I feel an administrative services department could really help the cohesiveness and communication and accountability through how we communicate. I have a sense that could improve, tremendously, and that will create more effectiveness and efficiency in some the flow of services from the city.
BW: If you’re elected you’ll be elected to a four-year term. Of course, there’s the potential for more. But just looking at that window, if we were to hop in a time machine and go ahead four years from now, what does the future of Salt Lake City under Mayor Luz Escamilla look like in 2024?
LE: It will be a couple of things. You’ll see a City Hall that will be more efficient, that will have implemented pieces of efficiency and direct service to constituents, from a permit to a license like that very unique piece of Salt Lake City. Like, me walking into City Hall and having a navigator help me.
How is that going to create better efficiency and a better sense of of customer service and good customer service from our city? More residents feeling that City Hall is there to serve them and that City Hall is coming to their neighborhood so they don’t have to make the drive or try to find parking or trying to get there. And a City Hall that will be inclusive of meetings and budget conversations, because those meetings will happen in their neighborhoods, maybe in their schools or a park or a community center, where there will be child care and interpreters helping in certain areas where we may have the diversity of our community. So that that’s one piece.
The other one is critical pieces happening. The negotiation with Rocky Mountain Power getting us closer to the 2030 goal, right now, of carbon-free. Those pieces are critical and those four years, you’re going to see a big change in how that is addressed. And that will happen next year. So I think that will be something that I’m sure The Tribune would have reported and it’s a lot of stories from that.
BW: And we will continue to do so.
LE: And then the other one is on working with the state. In four years, my goal is you can now go back and say ‘Wow, look at the state working with the city and really embracing capital city,’ and totally changing the dynamic of having a buy-in and a real sense of a need for investment in Salt Lake City because it will affect the entire state. And the [return on investment] will be there for them to see it, beyond just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it also makes sense from a business and economic development perspective. But also because we welcome the world and hopefully, hopefully, we also get the Olympics again in four years.
BW: I didn’t think to ask that. So you’re pro-Olympics number two?
LE: Yes, I’m pro-Olympics. I think it will be a great thing for the city and especially because it will leave a lot of infrastructure. We need to be a little bit more aggressive to make sure that infrastructure stays in the city and really helps some of our communities. But yeah. So we’ll be already gearing and getting ready for a 2030 Winter Olympics. And so those pieces, to me, will be what will happen for sure during the first four years and some education pieces there.
BW: Just think of how a new city flag would look at those Olympic venues.
LE: You really feel passionate about the flag, I can see.
BW: Well we’re going to have to talk more about that offline, but Sen. Luz Escamilla it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for being on ‘Trib Talk.’
LE: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.