Human Rights Commission clashes with Salt Lake City mayor over diversity director’s firing

Dismissal one of several issues raised in tense meeting that sought to clear the air <br>

(Michael Mangum | Special to The Tribune) Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski reacts to a question raised during a meeting of the capital's Human Rights Commission at City Hall in Salt Lake City on Thursday, November 30, 2017.

The mayor’s office and Salt Lake City’s Human Rights Commission, one of the capital’s leading civilian panels for diversity, began to address a deep rift between them in a meeting Thursday night, but not before airing grievances and baring some teeth.

At the end of the occasionally tense hourlong session, amid pledges of newfound understanding and cooperation, it was apparent that the two sides still suffer from a failure to communicate.

The schism, if it persists, threatens to impede or at least distract from the mayor’s ambitious diversity and human rights agenda, affecting initiatives in those matters in the areas of affordable housing, education and economic opportunity.

(Michael Mangum | Special to the Tribune) Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski listens during a meeting of the Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission at City Hall in Salt Lake City on Thursday, November 30, 2017.

The commission’s members, who are appointed by the mayor with City Council confirmation, are most angry over Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s recent dismissal of the woman who directed the city’s Office of Diversity and Human Rights, Yolanda Francisco-Nez. In addition to handling diversity issues, the position serves as the administration’s liaison to the commission.

Commission members on Thursday asked the mayor to explain the dismissal but were rebuffed when a city attorney, citing personnel confidentiality, said the mayor could not discuss it.

Beyond the firing, commission members said they were all but ignored by the mayor’s office, with vacancies going unfilled and offers of advice and assistance rebuffed or disregarded.

Biskupski, at times visibly irritated by the commission’s criticisms, pushed back against them, saying the lack of communication went both ways. But she also extended an olive branch.

“What I don’t want to do is have a battle here, because we have serious work to do,” the mayor said. “You’re frustrated, and I’m frustrated. What I’m saying is you weren’t getting information and I wasn’t getting information.”

She pledged that commission members should “have complete access to me.”

“I’m putting this on the record: my cellphone should be in your phones,” she said. “We should be dialoguing about things as they come up.”

The promises did not mollify commission members, and their anger over the ODHR director’s firing hung over the meeting. After her 2015 election, Biskupski praised Francisco-Nez’s work, reappointing her to the post and expanding her role. The mayor singled her out for praise again in her 2016 State of the City address.

Without specifically discussing the firing, Biskupski and other administration officials said the change was made as the mayor’s office moves to centralize siloed human rights and diversity functions under one office. The woman who replaced Francisco-Nez, Moana Uluave-Hafoka, a Pacific islander and Salt Lake City native, has been given more responsibilities.

Tacit in the back-and-forth between the mayor and commission was the implication that the departed director played a role in the communication problems. When commission Chairman Michael Iverson pressed the mayor to cite examples of where communication broke down, the mayor again pushed back.

“Michael, we can spend all night playing this game, which is kind of how it feels,” she told Iverson. “I think the reality of it is I made a choice about a staff member that you don’t like, and what I will say is that choice had to be made. And moving forward you will find that we will have significant improvement in communication, you will find we have significant opportunity to effect change, and you will find that this team is committed to the work you do, to your advisory role and to the work we can do together.”

The lengthy exchange delayed a presentation by the city’s human resources director, Julio Garcia, on city government employment statistics regarding race, gender and pay equity.

Afterward, commissioners — surprised when they had to remind the mayor they meet monthly, not quarterly — said they would take a wait-and-see approach.

“It was very difficult to get answers out of the mayor and her staff on a lot of these important issues,” Iverson said. “The primary question I had at the end was how autonomous is our commission supposed to be, and I wasn’t able to get an answer.”

He said their differences with the mayor remain unresolved, “But I certainly hope we’re on the path to that resolution.

“As long as she follows through, I think that’s what we need,” he said.