SLC planning commissioner resigns, citing ‘lack of expertise’ from colleagues

Andra Ghent, a University of Utah professor, wrote a scathing letter outlining why she was leaving the commission before the end of her term.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) City Hall in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 23, 2022.

A University of Utah professor resigned from her volunteer position on Salt Lake City’s planning commission this week, writing in a scathing letter to Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the city’s top planner that she is frustrated with her fellow commissioners’ lack of expertise.

Andra Ghent, a finance professor and academic director of the U.’s Ivory-Boyer Real Estate Center, submitted her resignation letter Tuesday. The resignation was first reported by development news website Building Salt Lake.

“I’m disappointed at the lack of knowledge of urban economics and/or real estate among some of my fellow commissioners,” she wrote. “In addition to wasting meeting time explaining basic concepts, the lack of expertise frequently leads to poor decisions.”

Ghent was appointed to the planning commission in 2021 and was slated to serve until September 2025. The volunteer commission prepares general plans and makes recommendations on zoning and ordinance changes before the City Council makes a final decision.

“Mayor Mendenhall expresses her gratitude for professor Ghent’s time on the planning commission,” Mendenhall spokesperson Andrew Wittenberg said in a statement. “Salt Lake City commissioners and board members serve as volunteers and may exit their service at any time.”

Ghent wrote that she joined the commission because she wanted to make a difference in the city’s air quality by pushing Utah’s capital toward greater density.

“However, there is no opportunity for commissioners to initiate petitions that would create meaningful change for the city,” she wrote. “I often felt like, rather than providing support for commissioners to make decisions for the city, staff viewed planning commissioners as low-level administrative employees to be managed and contained.”

She told Mendenhall and planning director Nick Norris that too much time is spent during meetings hearing public comment on administrative matters, which she contends wastes commissioners’ time and does not serve the public because most comments are on topics outside the commission’s purview.

“Further,” she wrote, “the members of the public that do show up to meetings are overwhelmingly white, older homeowners in contrast to our young, racially diverse, majority renter city.”

Ghent said she would understand appointing unqualified commissioners if there were a lack of suitable candidates, but that is not the case. She wrote that not appointing her colleague, whom she contends is an expert on housing and commercial real estate, “suggests the city is not interested in an evidence-based planning strategy.”

The U. professor said not having an established ending time for meetings means she is “effectively writing a blank check” on her time, and that it would be “straightforward” to adjourn between agenda items when a meeting passes a certain time.

Meeting times make it difficult to find volunteers who are willing to commit their Wednesday evenings and potentially the quality of their Thursdays, she wrote. Those marathon meetings, she added, often lead to poor decisions.

“In summary, being a commissioner is not an effective use of my time,” she wrote. “Rather than donating my time, I plan to donate money to candidates and locally focused organizations consistent with improving the city’s walkability, our air quality, and housing affordability.”

Ghent contributed $500 to Mendenhall’s campaign in 2021 and again this year, city records show. Over the summer, she contributed $250 to each of incumbent council member Dan Dugan’s challengers in the east side’s District 6 race. Both Mendenhall and Dugan successfully retained their seats.