‘I hope they get fired’: Utah senators blame Salt Lake City lobbyists for controversial inland port negotiations; mayor, council call for veto of bill

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski makes a comment on SB234, the inland port bill in the Economic Development committee meeting, Friday, March 2, 2018.

Three Utah senators criticized Salt Lake City and its lobbyists Friday over a controversial bill that the city denounced. One of the lawmakers went so far as to say the lobbyists should be fired.

The measure, Senate Bill 234, would create the Inland Port Authority, an agency that would oversee the establishment of an international trade hub to be built in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City.

It also spawned anger in the mayor’s office, which denounced the final version of the bill. Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Thursday wrote that the bill usurped the city’s taxing and zoning authority and “compromised environmental protections.” On Friday, she reiterated her opposition to the bill, saying it “undercuts local control and gives an unelected, unaccountable board authority.”

The three senators, all Democrats from Salt Lake City, were disgruntled by the passage of the bill and how it was negotiated by city lobbyists.

“We believe much could have been done by a serious, concentrated, and inclusive team approach, rather than the uncommunicative, closed strategy used by the city,” the senators wrote in a letter, which was drafted March 8 and intended for Biskupski and the City Council.

The letter was signed but not sent.

One of the letter’s authors, Sen. Jim Dabakis, said on Friday evening that he and his fellow letter writers, Sens. Luz Escamilla and Gene Davis, were “frankly annoyed,” about being left out of the negotiations.

But the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, David Litvack, said that exclusion wasn’t the city’s choice. The decision of whom to include, Litvack said, was made by the Senate sponsor, Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. Stevenson did not respond to request for comment Friday.

And Ken Bullock — who, along with Lynn Pace, lobbied for the city in negotiations — communicated with Escamilla “continuously” via phone calls, text messages and two meetings throughout the legislative session, Litvack said.

There were two meetings early in the legislative session and three text messages — one on March 2, one the morning of the vote and one the day after the vote — regarding the Inland Port Authority, Escamilla said Friday evening.

Other than that, she said, she wasn’t included in conversations “at all.”

We were told everything was OK,” Escamilla said, “that it was handled.”

Dabakis said he was out of the loop.

“We get not only no communications but they also didn’t get the job done, either,” Dabakis said. “Bad on both counts.”

He would have cajoled his colleagues, he said. He would have begged and bargained and demanded.

“Truth is, I may be overstating my ability to influence,“ he said. “But, I’ll tell you, if I had known about [the negotiations] ... we would have ended up with a much better deal than we got from these lobbyists who are simply arrogant and think that they can just go in there and do everything.”

In the letter, he and the other two senators called the result the “worst possible outcome for the city.”

“For the third consecutive year, we would like to emphasize that we, Senators elected to represent Salt Lake City, believe the city is very poorly represented by paid lobbyists at the Capitol,” the letter continued. “Indeed, we think they do the city harm.”

Dabakis went further Friday afternoon.

“I hope they get fired,” he said.

The three senators spoke to Biskupski in person about their frustrations, Escamilla said, and told her about the letter.

Davis declined to comment on the letter, which he said was not meant to be public.

But Dabakis uploaded a photo of the letter to Facebook on Friday afternoon, along with a post calling Pace and Bullock “ineffectual.”

The city defended its government liaisons Friday night.

This has nothing to do with our lobbyists, who were working with the state in a good-faith effort to find a path forward which worked for everyone,” said Matthew Rojas, director of communications for the city, in a text message to The Salt Lake Tribune. “This was a blindside attack not only on everyone at City Hall but to the people of Salt Lake City and their elected officials.”

Biskupski and the City Council on Friday evening urged Gov. Gary Herbert to veto the legislation.

Council members have extreme concerns with the bill, which undercuts core city functions, such as taxing and certain land use authority, from the City,” the council wrote in a news release Friday evening. “The bill also puts more than one fourth of land within the City under control of a majority non-elected Board instead of City leaders, elected by residents to represent the interests of the public. Council leaders say the bill could set a bad precedent for any city in Utah.”

All seven members of the City Council oppose the bill, the release states, for a “long list of reasons.”

After four substitutions, the final version of the bill, “with many key changes, did not receive a public hearing and was passed late at night in less than an hour after it was released,” the release continued.

We are urging all Utah residents to contact Governor Herbert to veto SB234 because it is an unprecedented land and power grab of nearly 22,000 acres,” Biskupski wrote in a Friday evening news release.

According to Litvack, the city was surprised by the bill’s whirlwind passage through the Senate and the House on Wednesday night.

Up until Wednesday night at 10 p.m.,” Litvack said, “we thought we had an understanding with the senate sponsor, that we had one change left that we wanted on the bill that he had said to us he supported, and we thought we were there. I don’t know what happened to cause the change.”

On the morning of the vote — when Bullock sent one of the text messages to Escamilla, saying everything was OK — the city anticipated that the bill would be sent to a conference committee, according to Litvack.

“Ken did a tremendous job in getting us to where we thought we were in a very good position, and then something totally out of our control changed,” Litvack said. “And I wish I knew what it was.”

The state’s quest for an inland port in the northwest quadrant was no surprise, said former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold. “The surprise is [that the Biskupski administration] wasn’t ready,” he said Friday afternoon.

City officials have seen this coming for more than a year, Penfold said. There were indications as far back to 2016 that the state was thinking up an inland port near the soon-to-be built state prison and Salt Lake City International Airport.

But the Biskupski administration just brushed it off,” Penfold said.

By the time the 2018 legislative session opened, he said, the inland port was a done deal.

“I’m disappointed in the mayor and the lack of leadership by the mayor,” he said. “It takes a strong and politically savvy leader at the city to make sure we aren’t trampled on by the state. I haven’t seen anything at all from the mayor.”