Inside Mayor Biskupski’s strategy of silence as Salt Lake City Council members negotiated their own Inland Port deal

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Salt Lake City council chair Erin Mendenhall, Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Mike Reberg, director of the Department of Community and Neighborhoods met with the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board to discuss the mayor's proposed sales tax increase and bond issue for city roads, Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski not only declined to take part in one of the most consequential — and controversial — policy debates this year, she forbade her staff from getting involved as well.

Members of the City Council had begun working with top legislators and the governor’s office, trying to change a law that will guide development on thousands of acres of land on the far-west side.

There’s already a law creating what they call an “inland port," but Gov. Gary Herbert and top lawmakers expressed a willingness to hear about Salt Lake’s concerns and address some of them.

But Biskupski was done, convinced that any negotiations would end in a bad deal for Salt Lake City.

Back in May, she came close to brokering a compromise but then pulled out just before Herbert planned to call a special session.

The governor, using a new deal reached with council members, has called a special session for Wednesday, where the Legislature is expected to pass amendments creating an Inland Port that is more palitable to at least the City Council.

A series of interviews, emails and texts provide new insights into the breakdown between a City Council willing to compromise and the mayor, who stayed out of the key talks on creating a landlocked international trading hub, where goods from other countries and states flow in and out. It’s described as the biggest economic development project in Utah’s history.

“The compromises that I was hearing about simply were not OK with me," Biskupski said in an interview Tuesday. “I did not want to participate in the compromises that they were making.”

The mayor’s absence left City Council members and their staff alone in talks with a group that included the inland port’s biggest cheerleaders. It also created new tension between the mayor of Utah’s largest city and the City Council, council members say.

“It really makes no sense. Especially on something as big as this,” Councilman Charlie Luke said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s one thing for the mayor to choose not to participate, which was her choice. It was another thing for the mayor to not have her staff participate.

“Once she extended that prohibition to all city employees — who are paid by the taxpayers — at that point, we were in a totally different bizarro world than I’ve ever seen,” Luke added.

The talks restart

A few weeks after a deal between the mayor and governor fell apart, House Speaker Greg Hughes held a news conference with Salt Lake City Sen. Jim Dabakis in what the two described as a symbolic outreach to anyone from the city who wanted to talk about changes to SB234, the law which created the Utah Inland Port.

The City Council bit.

Over the next six weeks, the groups met with legislative aides and Herbert’s staff. Council members invited the mayor or her staff to join those talks on at least four occasions, according to a letter Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall sent to Biskupski on July 10 and emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. The council shared many of the same concerns the mayor had with the law creating the port.

Others confirmed Biskupski had a seat at the table if she wanted it.

“I nearly pleaded with you previously to ask the mayor to participate in these discussions,” Ron Gordon, Herbert’s general counsel, wrote in a July 9 text to David Litvack, Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff. “I don’t know what else we can do. We certainly will not accept the ongoing representations that the mayor has not been invited to participate.”

By that point city and state officials were buttoning up late versions of a draft bill. But it wasn’t the first time Biskupski’s office was invited to attend.

A June 16 email from Cindy Gust-Jenson, executive director of the City Council, shows she asked Biskupski’s chief of staff if “a key staff member from the Mayor’s Office” would join a working group on possible changes to the inland port law. Two days later, Litvack declined, emails show.

Biskupski felt that the House speaker was excluding her and that the result would still be a negative for the city. She would ask her staff not to engage, too.

“They were inviting staff. Not me,” the mayor said in an interview. “The reason I drew that line is because that is not a win for our city.”

Help from Salt Lake County

Biskupski says she knew from discussions with the governor that the city would ultimately lose control over land use decisions on the nearly 20,000 acres, along with control over a significant amount of property taxes, regardless of whether she or her staff negotiated.

The council was at the table, and they wanted help from experts within Biskupski’s administration. But the mayor’s withdrawal included her division directors as well.

“Initially, we asked ‘can we meet with staff to ask fact-based questions?’ ... they denied that request,” Mendenhall said. “We asked, ‘well, if we put them in writing?’ And they said yes. Then we submitted those questions and then they denied that at the last minute.”

“We are doing our best to address this issue absent the mayor’s participation,” Mendenhall added, “and absent the professional city resources that the taxpayers have funded to address just such serious budget and policy issues."

Biskupski confirmed she asked her administration not to help.

“I did ask that my staff do not meet with them to help facilitate the compromise on land use and taxing authority,” Biskupski said. “As mayor, I was not comfortable with the direction that the council was heading on behalf of this city without the community knowing what was happening.”

City Council staff went instead to experts at Salt Lake County to double-check a bill draft that was going around in early July, including Wilf Sommerkorn, the county’s director of regional planning and transportation, according to records obtained through an information request.

The results of the negotiations were first made public Monday morning, when Herbert called on legislators to gather in a special session to hold a public hearing and vote on a compromise.

The new bill, released Monday evening, would give the city time to handle development disputes on what had been scaled back to roughly 16,150 acres (down from over 22,000 in the law).

The bill would also make clear that the board would work with the cities and towns included in the boundary to pay for services, such as police and fire.

It’s not perfect, Mendenhall said. “But it’s a good piece of policy, and it addresses the bulk of our concerns very well."

The port authority would still retain nearly all of the property taxes that climb once the vacant land is transformed into a network of roads, rails and warehouses. Ten percent of the increase will go to a fund for housing for low- and moderate-income families.

Biskupski says the law could be challenged in court by any number of groups.

“They’ve created so many enemies in this process that any non-government organization out there could file a lawsuit, or multiple lawsuits,” she said, “to hold this up and to create the process the people are looking for.”

A representative from her office will go to the Capitol on Wednesday and voice her opposition, she said, shortly before the scheduled vote on the compromise.