Gehrke: When the going gets tough, Salt Lake City’s mayor goes missing — and it could doom her chances for re-election

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

For all the talk of wanting to be a “partner” on the inland port, the original “deal” the Legislature came up with was about as raw as anyone can imagine.

The Legislature took control of a vast portion of northwest Salt Lake City, turned it over to an appointed board, let the board keep all of the tax money and left the city to provide services.

It’s a little like a mugger wanting to “partner” with you about the use of your wallet.

It was also, as Don Corleone would say, an offer the city couldn’t refuse. The Legislature had the power to do pretty much anything it wanted — so it did.

Within that limited context, the refinements to the inland port law that were hammered out by the City Council, the governor and House Speaker Greg Hughes were actually significant improvements.

Sensitive areas (which probably wouldn’t have been developable anyway) were carved out of the boundaries of the port. Ten percent of the tax revenue generated in the port is earmarked to affordable housing projects. There are some additional environmental protections, albeit squishy ones, that weren’t in the original law. The new law makes clear the city will get paid for services, such as police protection, it provides.

By pretty much any standard, the bill that was passed in the special session was a better bill than the mayor was able to negotiate with the Senate during the session (before House Republicans steamrolled both of them) and was far better than what was in law.

“To leave [the previous] law in place would have been an untenable situation for the city and would have harmed generations of city residents,” said City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall. “The new law is not perfect, and will be improved over time, a process which I very much look forward to.”

This improvement took place without the mayor.

Biskupski was AWOL throughout the negotiations on the port intended to move huge quantities of goods through the air, by rail or by truck. She has not spoken to the governor about the port since their negotiations imploded in a heated phone call back in May. Whether she was not invited to the talks with the City Council or she chose not to attend, her strategy appears to have been to dig in and fight.

She went so far as forbidding Salt Lake City staff from cooperating or assisting the council during the negotiations.

This bunker mentality is one we have seen from Biskupski over and over on big issues since she became mayor — from the site selection for the homeless shelters to Operation Rio Grande.

Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke nails it: “This is an established pattern,” Luke told me. “When things get difficult, she tends to dig her heels in. And while advocating for specific positions is critical, not being willing to do the work, to talk to folks, to negotiate on behalf of the residents of Salt Lake City is abdicating responsibility.

“With that abdication, that’s when the council stepped in … [the port] was moving forward, with or without us. And simply complaining about that did nothing to correct any of the issues that were critical to Salt Lake City.”

The mayor’s strategy may not just be bad for the city — it may be her political undoing.

There is a long list of people considering challenging the mayor in next year’s municipal election: former Salt Lake City Council Chairman Stan Penfold, prominent business consultant David Ibarra, David Garbett from the Pioneer Park Coalition, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, former Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott, current Salt Lake Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Jim Dabakis.

They’re prominent people who could attract considerable money and there is a clear line of thinking among several of them that the mayor has failed to lead on the important issues. Polling conducted by one of the potential challengers (not Dabakis, who released his own poll back in March that showed Biskupski was vulnerable) finds Biskupski’s core of supporters is shockingly small.

That was before the inland port fiasco and the council’s action that showed the mayor to be an outsider looking in.

Maybe the mayor’s tough, no-compromise, never surrender approach will resonate with voters and she’ll be Salt Lake City’s Winston Churchill — We shall fight them on the port, we shall fight them on the shelters, we shall fight them on the Hill.

It seems unlikely.

What seems more likely is that refusing to engage will continue to leave a leadership vacuum in City Hall that, to the extent they can, the council, the county or even the Legislature will step in to fill. That’s bad for the city and it’s bad politically for the mayor.

But it’s what, by now, we have come to expect.