A dispute between Salt Lake City and The Leonardo museum over a homeless encampment and the museum’s lawn sprinklers flared up Friday morning on Twitter.
At about 9:15 a.m. Friday, maintenance crews at The Leonardo, at 209 E. 500 South on Salt Lake City’s Library Square, turned on the outdoor sprinklers, according to Havilah Clarke, the museum’s chief engagement officer.
According to Rachel Otto, chief of staff to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the mayor was driving into work at City Hall — a block west of The Leonardo — when she saw the sprinklers spraying. The mayor, Otto said, saw belongings were still on the parking strip along 500 South that has been a homeless encampment area throughout the winter.
Clarke said crews went out to warn people in the tents at 8 a.m., and again at 8:30 a.m. — and then museum officials called police to help people relocate. Another warning was issued at 9 a.m., she said, before the water was turned on at 9:15, “to ensure everyone had ample time to move, and clear out their belongings.”
Friday was the first warm day the maintenance had taken place this year, she said. “We were conducting standard maintenance,” Clarke said. “As far as everyone’s concerned, we did nothing wrong.”
The mayor strongly disagreed, Otto said. “Under any circumstances, this was not the right thing to do," Otto said.
When Mendenhall entered her office, “she was very, very alarmed,” Otto said. “The fear was this had been done intentionally, and without adequate notice.”
After people from the mayor’s office tried to contact officials at The Leonardo, a city crew was sent over to shut off the water. The water had been running about 20 minutes.
In a thread on her official Twitter account, Mendenhall decried the practice. “To be perfectly clear, Salt Lake City condemns turning sprinklers on where unsheltered individuals are present,” Mendenhall wrote. “It is inhumane and abhorrent.”
Mendenhall also stressed the city’s partnerships with county and state government, and with nonprofit organizations, “to make contact with unsheltered individuals and engage them in services and connect them with housing.” She pointed out that such work “is a process that takes time and repeated, sustained contact with individuals before it’s successful.”
Clarke also touted the work The Leonardo has done for Salt Lake City’s homeless population. She cited the museum’s “No Fixed Address” exhibition, which ran in 2016, “to give voice to the voiceless,” Clarke said.
As for the homeless encampment on The Leonardo’s doorstep, Clarke said, "we believe we have been more than understanding,” adding that “we would never do anything to deliberately hurt this population.”
She added: “We followed the same policies and procedures that we have all year long. This is no different than any other day, when we need to temporary relocate people to conduct regular business maintenance.”
Museum officials complained earlier this winter about the encampment, citing safety concerns for museum visitors and school groups.
Friday’s sprinkler dispute is just the latest face-off between the city and The Leonardo, an arts-and-sciences museum housed in the former home of the Salt Lake City Library’s main branch, a building the city owns.
In November, the city under Mendenhall’s predecessor, Jackie Biskupski, served a formal notice of default against The Leonardo, over around $600,000 in unpaid loan and utility service bills owed to the city. City officials have also said The Leonardo has failed to maintain the building, under its lease agreement.