House Speaker Greg Hughes and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski took a public clash over Operation Rio Grande from the airwaves to a city hallway Tuesday, parting with smiles but apparently no closer to consensus.
Earlier Tuesday, Hughes told KSL’s Doug Wright that Biskupski had spread a “false narrative” to downtown homeless service providers and was “leveraging” her role in the sought-after closure of Rio Grande Street so Hughes would reduce the city’s $10 million share of the operation’s $67 million preliminary budget.
Biskupski called the show to say she was “aghast” at the Draper Republican’s comments.
Later Tuesday, after both leaders had briefed the Salt Lake City Council, they shook hands on the third floor of City Hall as Biskupski — formerly a Democratic state representative — announced, “At the end of the day, we’re friends.”
Shoulder to shoulder, they then fielded questions — and aired their grievances anew.
The public bickering comes a day after officials unveiled a two-year preliminary operation budget, which began 2½ weeks ago and is meant to reduce rampant lawlessness near the 210 S. Rio Grande St. homeless shelter.
Hughes told Wright that all players except Biskupski are working “phenomenally well together” as he seeks the immediate closure of Rio Grande Street between the shelter and the Catholic Community Services facilities immediately to the east.
The stretch would be fenced off to create a “safe space” where homeless people could receive support services without being preyed upon by drug dealers, Hughes said, and where those violating city ordinances against camping and loitering could be told to go, making those ordinances constitutionally defensible.
Hughes, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams have called for the closure, and Hughes and Cox argued Tuesday that Biskupski has the power to temporarily close the street without any legislative approval, just as soon as she wants.
McAdams released a statement Tuesday, referring to a proposal he had made in June to explore closing Rio Grande Street and to turn it into a courtyard area with services.
“I continue to support a temporary closure of Rio Grande Street to create a safe space to deliver services to people trying to get back on their feet,” he said. “We stand ready to work with partners to ensure the space will have necessary services and better public safety.”
Biskupski said Tuesday that Hughes hadn’t insisted upon a speedy closure until Monday, that it may not be necessary, given existing courtyard areas at the shelter and day center, and that a legal review and a public legislative process should precede any action.
In her preferred timeline, the council would hold a public hearing and vote on a longer-term closure Sept. 19, in time for a legislative special session that Biskupski told Wright is planned for Sept. 20.
Gov. Gary Herbert hasn’t called a special session, but Deputy Chief of Staff Paul Edwards said in a statement Tuesday that Sept. 20, “as Interim Day, would be a logical opportunity to do that.”
Hughes said his Monday request wasn’t new. What was new, as of Wright’s show, was Biskupski’s stance that she would support the street closure if a public process could occur first.
“We’ve talked about this multiple times,” he said. “We’ve had resistance and agreement, and resistance and agreement — I’m about four times into the cycle of resistance and agreement, and back to resistance. At this point, that’s why I was more willing to be public about my concerns.”
The theatrics of Tuesday morning’s radio show seemed to take even the host by surprise.
Hughes accused Biskupski of being “subversive” by telling area service providers, he later elaborated, that the enclosed areas may bring them additional costs and liability.
At one point, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Brian Besser — who has advised Hughes as the speaker has marshaled the effort from a Gateway storefront — apparently tried to call in from a plane.
When Biskupski called in to respond to Hughes, the speaker told Wright: “You can leave me on the line, if you’d like. I’d love to have that conversation publicly.” Wright later explained that he didn’t want Biskupski to feel “blindsided” by that arrangement.
“Do I think Operation Rio Grande is working? I absolutely do,” Biskupski told Wright. “I think we have been on a very strategic path. I think that what‘s happening today is very unfortunate because nobody is saying no. We are trying to walk through processes.”
At the end of Biskupski’s call, Wright said he’d had “repeated offers” from Hughes to join the conversation, but Biskupski said she had to attend a jail-bed meeting at the Capitol, and that Hughes was free to find her there.
Cox clarified to the council later Tuesday that service providers aren’t being asked to manage the enclosed space, and that the city would be compensated for associated costs. The council’s approval isn’t required for Biskupski to shut down the street on a temporary basis.
“We have stuff we have to do before the service providers can come in there,” Cox said. “That’s why waiting three weeks isn’t great for us, because then we need to wait another three weeks to get this done.”
The boards of both involved service providers should be allowed to weigh in first, Biskupski argued later Tuesday. She added that The Road Home and the Weigand Homeless Resource Center could allow more people on their existing property as an interim fix, “and really all they’re asking for is some additional law enforcement support that they know weapons and drugs are not coming in. That would take a dog and a cop.”
Road Home Executive Director Matt Minkevitch declined to comment Tuesday, while Catholic Community Services Director of Homeless Services Matthew Melville did not respond to a request for comment.
Hughes said service providers should not be caught “in between two public servants who have different ideas of what should happen there — and I think they’ve expressed support to both of us, and we appreciate what they do.”
Biskupski never overtly used the Rio Grande Street closure as a bargaining chip so Hughes would slash the city’s portion of the budget, the speaker clarified later Tuesday, and Biskupski said, “It never even crossed my mind.”
But Hughes added that if the opposition to a temporary closure isn’t motivated by budgetary concerns, “I just can’t, for the life of me, understand where the pushback’s coming from.”
The city’s $10 million portion “seems to be a number that the mayor has indicated has been too high,” he said, adding that he has little sympathy even if Salt Lake City had already built $11 million for the Rio Grande area into this year’s budget.
The state and the county have associated costs that aren’t part of the $67 million budget, too, he said, and though he has acknowledged that the state capital shares an outsize portion of the state’s homelessness burden, it also has skyscrapers, big business, an NBA team and world-class performing arts centers.
Biskupski told the City Council on Tuesday that her staff has identified $3.5 million — in part by redirecting $685,000 it had budgeted to keep open 63 treatment beds associated with last fall’s Operation Diversion law enforcement effort — to put toward Year One efforts. She asked the council to help finding another $2.6 million to meet the city’s annual share of a $21 million funding gap.
Cox encouraged the council to view the additional funds as a “grant, of sorts,” with a match of three state and county dollars for every one city dollar.
Hughes and Cox met a receptive audience in the council. Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said she’d learned more from them in 20 minutes than she has in weeks.
After Biskupski mentioned that Councilman Derek Kitchen had attended meetings related to Operation Rio Grande, Kitchen said that he had shared everything he had learned with council staff, and that Biskupski had attended more meetings than he had.
“We have not received a great deal of information from you yet,” he said.
Hughes said he planned to attend a Ballpark Community Council meeting after addressing west side residents in Poplar Grove last Friday, and said earlier to Wright: “I’ll go anywhere, and I’ll talk to anyone about this issue.”