A week ago last Friday night, Gov. Gary Herbert and his wife, Jeanette, were going to a play at Hale Centre Theatre when his phone rang.
It was Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, and the news she was delivering wasn’t good.
After weeks of negotiations aimed at working out differences over the creation of an Inland Port Authority and who would control the city’s largely undeveloped northwest quadrant, the governor’s office thought they had come up with a compromise.
Instead, Biskupski told Herbert the deal was off. Not only that, the city would go to court to keep the port authority from taking away the city’s power, according to multiple sources who were told of the conversation.
Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff, David Litvack, said he was not privy to the mayor’s call, but he had not heard about any threat of a lawsuit and the goal remains to hammer out an agreement that is fair to all parties.
“Do we recognize that legal action or a lawsuit is in the toolkit? Yeah,” he said. “But the administration and City Council have been very clear about the preference all along to work together with the state and county and private property owners to get where we want to go.”
The idea is that Utah’s centralized location in the West — which made it the meeting place for the Transcontinental Railroad — could again make it a crossroads for commerce, where shipments could come into the redesigned airport and fan out via truck across the Intermountain region.
Proponents believe it could be an economic bonanza for the state. But when the Legislature passed a bill to, for all intents and purposes, take over the development and operations of the planned port, there was friction between the state and the city.
And whether or not Biskupski threatened the governor with a lawsuit, that was the message Herbert conveyed to legislative leaders, and now it has ended any talk of a possible compromise.
House Speaker Greg Hughes said the governor told him Biskupski felt steamrolled and the city would go to court.
“We were working together, the governor was running point in dialogues with the mayor herself,” Hughes said. “All reports were that there was consensus and agreement and we were excited for that and were informed on Saturday that the agreement had fallen apart and there was no agreement at all.”
Without an agreement in place, the governor is moving ahead with implementing the new Inland Port Authority board — notwithstanding the city’s objections.
“That port authority needs to be organized and put together so we can function,” Herbert said during his monthly KUED news conference. “And that is exactly what we will do.”
Biskpuski and Herbert started talking before the governor even signed the bill. She urged him to veto the measure, but in his letter explaining his signature, Herbert acknowledged four specific concerns from the city and committed to addressing them.
• The mayor wants some changes to the port authority boundary to try to remove residential property and to protect some wetlands along the Great Salt Lake.
• She wants to be able to appoint a member to the Port Authority Board. Currently, the City Council appoints one member and the Salt Lake Airport Authority appoints one.
• She wants the port authority to be allowed to keep 2 percent of the property tax increment — the current law says it can keep up to 100 percent, leaving the city to provide fire and police services without getting any cash to pay for it.
• Finally, she wants to make sure the port authority’s land use appeals board doesn’t trump city land use decisions.
The deal was close enough that Herbert, on Friday, told Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser to prepare for a special session the following week. But when the city received a draft of the bill, the mayor felt that, on the last two points, it didn’t reflect what had been discussed.
Litvack said the city wants to keep working toward a solution.
But when I asked House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who sponsored the inland port bill, if the time for negotiating is over, he said, “I think, as far as I’m concerned, yeah.”
“They want total control,” he said of the city. “That’s just not going to happen.”
Trust between the city and the state is broken at this point, but both sides need to get on the same page if the port is to move forward in a timely fashion. Salt Lake City has legitimate grievances, not just with the blatant power grab by the Legislature, but with the process that went into it.
Nobody wins if this ends up in the courts, and if an inland port is ever to become a reality, it needs to be done with all parties working together.
“It’s unfortunate that we are where we are,” Litvack said. “But I also believe if we all kind of step back a little bit and think about what we’re trying to accomplish and that it’s going to take all of us, we can find that sweet spot to come back to the table and resolve this.”
That’s exactly what it will take, and, hopefully, we see that unfold in the coming weeks, for the good of all Utahns.