As Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski battles state leaders over control of a vast new trade hub — called an inland port — planned in the capital’s northwest area, her weapon of last resort has always been the possibility of suing.
The City Council, which often butts heads with the mayor, on Tuesday removed her ability to file such a lawsuit — unless she first obtains the council’s permission. The intent language was tucked quietly into the city’s annual budget.
The move ensures “that it’s not one branch of the government leading out on the other,” said Councilman James Rogers, whose west-side district includes most of the proposed inland port. Instead, the provision would require that the council and mayor must agree on a lawsuit before one went forward.
“We just don’t want them [state officials] to think we’re not willing to negotiate. We are,” Rogers said. “The mayor is on a different page than the council. We’re not looking for a fight if there is no need for a fight.”
Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said, “The mayor has talked about litigation publicly multiple times. We take her words very seriously.”
So, Mendenhall said, the council acted to ensure it “would be made part of the decision-making process…. I think just the gravity of a lawsuit between the city and the state is such that the legislative body should have some input.”
Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Biskupski, downplayed the swipe at the mayor and suggested that she is fine with the council’s action.
It shows “that any action we would take, we will take with one voice. We are comfortable with that,” he said. “That should be the key message here, that the city is speaking with one voice. Negotiation is our No. 1 avenue” to resolve differences.
As the council quickly moved Tuesday through a long list of motions to approve its annual budget, Rogers made an obscure one that had no debate but brought quick unanimous approval. It quietly created the inland port lawsuit limitation.
The intent language adopted says that no money in the new budget can be used for “impact litigation as defined and stated on the motion sheet.” The Salt Lake Tribune obtained a copy of that definition Wednesday, and it was clear that it bans the mayor from suing over the inland port unless the council agrees to it.
“We want to be collaborative,” Rogers said in explaining the move in an interview with the newspaper Wednesday. “I don’t want the state to think Salt Lake City is not interested” in negotiating. “We have no idea where the mayor is at.”
The action comes a week after state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who opposed the law creating the inland port, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who led its creation, negotiated some proposed changes and called for more talks.
Rogers noted that all council members signed letters to Hughes and Dabakis and to Gov. Gary Herbert praising their “willingness to restart the productive dialogue,” and they accepted an invitation “to take part in this conversation.”
The mayor’s office has been more guarded about the Dabakis-Hughes negotiations, saying they sound OK but “the devil is in the details.” Rojas said the mayor has been working more directly with Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who sponsored the bill.
Rojas said that while the mayor has always said a lawsuit is possible if the city cannot win key concessions, “We’re not there yet.”
He added, “A lawsuit is not in anyone’s best interest. At the same time, the mayor wants to ensure the city is protected.”
Biskupski has aired two main concerns about the legislation passed on the eve of the Legislature’s final day in March: that the newly created port authority would take away local control of land use in an area that covers more than a quarter of the city, and it would take all of the future property tax revenues there — hurting the city’s ability to provide services.
Mendenhall said the council also has “grave concerns” about the current law and is eager for negotiated changes.
Last month, the city believed it had reached an agreement with lawmakers and Herbert after they spent weeks working on a compromise.
However, after seeing a draft, Biskupski said it didn’t reflect the agreement reached, so she withdrew her support — just before a planned special session of the Legislature to consider it.
The Legislature holds monthly interim meetings again next week — when special sessions are usually called — but Mendenhall said a bill is not yet ready for that.
She expects more discussions in coming weeks. “I’ve been in contact with Speaker Hughes and Governor Herbert. Both are anxious to re-engage the conversation and come to a mutually agreeable point.”
Salt Lake City leaders were furious at the time over how the new port authority was created.
The city had worked with lawmakers on a version of the bill that passed the Senate. But the House abruptly pushed through a different version that included big changes on taxes, governance and boundaries.
Rather than fight for its version, the Senate acquiesced with little debate and time running out on the legislative session. The city has been fighting for changes ever since, and the governor, even while signing the bill into law, called for amendments to satisfy city concerns.