Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold has served just two terms, but those eight years make him the council’s longest-serving member. When he and one-term Councilwoman Lisa Adams leave office this week, the seven-member council will have four members with two years or less time in office, including two new members to be sworn in Tuesday.
“I came onto a council that was pretty well established,” Penfold said last week. “To leave at eight years and have the most seniority, it’s just kind of a little weird.”
Penfold and Adams depart halfway through Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s first term. In separate interviews, both lawmakers — who endorsed then-Mayor Ralph Becker over Biskupski in 2015 — called the past two years with the new administration “frustrating.”
Both have been mentioned as potential Biskupski challengers in 2019. At least one won’t be, for certain: Adams and her husband, John, are moving to New York in the spring for an 18-month stint as representatives of LDS Charities at the United Nations.
“We’ll be coming back for sure,” Adams said. Except for her Mormon mission service in Switzerland and France, the 59-year-old has lived all her life in Salt Lake City.
She called a future run for office unlikely but doesn’t rule it out.
“Down the road, maybe,” she said, “but it won’t be in 2019.”
Asked about a possible 2019 mayoral run, Penfold, who is 60, at first refused — good-humoredly but firmly — to answer.
“I’ll just say there’s some chatter out there,” he finally allowed. “I get that question a lot, which is concerning to me.”
Concerning, he said, because of what it could say about the current mayor’s performance. From his own experience, he said, the mayor is often confrontational and quick in equal measure to take credit but pass along blame, and her administration lacks transparency — all frequent criticisms from the council.
“The last two years have been frustrating,” he said. “It feels like the point of the administration is to figure out how to get around the council, and the response from the council is to figure out how to control the administration.”
Adams had similar criticism, saying the challenge of working with this administration helped prompt her not to run again.
“I have enjoyed everybody on the council, but it’s hard to work with this administration, and it’s very frustrating and that was part of my decision,” she said. “I thought, I don’t know if I want to keep banging my head against the wall for another two years, and possibly four more” if the mayor wins re-election in 2019.
In response, Biskupski’s office, which praised the outgoing council members for their service, said the mayor and council had tackled tough issues that made for tough going the past two years. The office noted consensus between the mayor and council on back-to-back city budgets, as well as for initiatives on citywide housing and transit plans and dealing with homelessness.
“They’re right — the last two years have been very difficult years,” mayoral spokesman Matt Rojas said of the outgoing council members. “But they’ve been difficult because we’ve chosen to tackle issues that the city has been facing for decades.”
‘I feel pretty good about two terms’
Penfold exits as the council’s chairman and after eight years representing District 3, which includes the Avenues and Capitol Hill neighborhoods. He started his civic and community involvement in the 1980s, helping to organize opposition to a proposed highway interchange that threatened to dump traffic in the area.
“I feel pretty good about two terms. I also feel pretty strongly about having a rotation, particularly on the City Council,” Penfold said in an interview at the 2-year-old Marmalade library branch, a project he cites as one of his accomplishments in office.
He considered running for a third term but decided he needed “something different.” That might be a return to community organizing while he continues to serve as executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation.
“I sort of look around and see there’s a lot of energy around getting active, the protests and that sort of thing,” he said. “But it’s almost like we lost the foundational education around what it means to get organized.”
As the population has aged and residents have enjoyed relative prosperity, the structure and direction that turns protest into real change has gone missing, he said.
“I’m the first to support a good organized protest, and even a nonpermitted protest; I’m all for it,” he said. “But I also have been around long enough to know that you’ve got to know how to work the system if you really want some significant long-term change.”
Besides the new library, he cites as accomplishments:
Loosening the city’s restrictive alcohol laws, which he said have spurred livelier dining and nightlife downtown and elsewhere.
Approving financing for the $120 million Eccles Theater, which opened in October 2016.
Pushing for establishing the Community Connections Center, a team of caseworkers attached to the police department who work with homeless people and those with mental health or other social-service needs.
Supporting the citywide transit master plan and affordable housing plan recently adopted by the council.
He offers another unconventional accomplishment: the master plan for Salt Lake City’s 250-acre municipal cemetery. It’s the largest city-operated cemetery in the country and a much-used community resource.
“Almost everybody who lives in the city has some connection to it,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you don’t really think about — until you start thinking about it.”
He also supported efforts to fight unhealthy air and other sustainability initiatives — most recently, a Free Fare Day on public transit that may become a regular feature on the city’s smoggiest days.
“Green bikes — I’ll probably be known for green bikes,” he said. Penfold helped find funding to expand the program — “which is OK, because I love green bikes.”
Chris Wharton, a lawyer, will be sworn in Tuesday as Penfold’s successor.
‘It’s been brutal’
Asked why she’s leaving after one term, Adams said she’s worn out. The offer of the U.N. posting came after she had announced that she would not run again.
“I have given them everything for four years, and it’s really exhausting and I want to do some other things,” she said. “When I made a decision not to run, it just felt right to me. It was a very hard decision because I’ve liked doing this. I have no regrets. But it’s been brutal. It’s been really, really hard.”
When the city first proposed new homeless resource centers around the city in late 2016, including one in the Sugar House neighborhood Adams represents, she received death threats. After the plan was announced, she went door to door, trying to educate residents on her own, answering their questions and enduring their wrath — with a plainclothes officer assigned to accompany her. That plan was later withdrawn and revised.
“I’m pretty tough, and last December I was crying, like, every day,” she recalled last week as she finished cleaning out her council office. Her name plaque on the dais in the council chambers was already gone, replaced by one for Amy Fowler, her successor, who will be sworn in Tuesday.
Despite the disappointments and disagreements with the mayor and administration, and the withering time commitment for a part-time position that sometimes meant 50 hours a week, she spoke with strong affection for her council colleagues and satisfaction for how she served her district.
“I don’t think there is another elected position, except maybe school board, that impacts people’s lives on a day-to-day basis like the City Council does,” she said. “I can drive through Sugar House and say that’s there because I helped it happen. Or that’s there because my constituents wanted it and we talked about it. Or this isn’t there, because we were able to not do that.”
Adams this year led the city’s Redevelopment Agency — the City Council serves as its board — and was credited, along with Vice Chairman and Councilman Derek Kitchen, with finalizing and garnering support for the affordable housing plan approved last month. Also with the RDA, she cited the move to bring all legal work for the agency in-house. Previously, the city spent up to $700,000 a year on outside attorneys.
She mentions improvements at Fairmont Park; working to restore the police bike squad, which has big fans in Sugar House; and adding the Police Department social workers. She laments an unfinished effort to permit the restoration and repair of vintage signs — currently, old broken signs can only be removed — and hopes to see the next council approve the measure in January. She also is disappointed that the city did not develop a long-term plan to fund street repairs and maintenance during her tenure.
Adams said she hopes her efforts to address homelessness and affordable housing will be part of her legacy. When she took office, skeptics viewed her only as a “country club, Republican, Mormon mom.”
She is all of those things — except a Republican — but changed minds because she “cared about social issues in ways that people were not expecting.”
“I won over some people who I think never thought that I would see things their way,” she said. “I won people over by doing my job well.”