In an impromptu speech outside the Salt Lake City Council chambers on Tuesday, Mayor Jackie Biskupski told the nearly 20 residents who had just raised concerns about the development of the controversial inland port that she expects the legislation that created it may face a legal challenge.
“The lawsuits will come,” she said, though she noted it may not be from her administration. “This is an unconstitutional bill. It has multiple challenges in it and our day in court will happen. But until then, we have a lot of work to do and we have to fight.”
The City Council, which often butts heads with the mayor, in June banned Biskupski from filing a lawsuit over the inland port unless she first obtained the council’s permission.
Lawmakers unveiled and passed the bill creating the inland port on 20,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s westernmost area late on the eve of the final day of January’s legislative session. The city fought the bill, protesting state overreach, loss of millions of dollars in tax revenues and a worrisome precedent for future state land grabs.
After it passed, city officials spent the next several months working to find a compromise with the port’s supporters at the Capitol, which they did in a special session in July — without Biskupski’s involvement.
Biskupski left Tuesday’s meeting early, after the public hearing on the inland port, to speak with constituents outside. That sparked irritation among members of the council, who noted that the agenda had specifically included a portion of time for the council to query administration.
“It looks like the time that the mayor is here, she’s out grandstanding and raising a ruckus outside," said Councilman Charlie Luke. "I think it’s very unfortunate that she’s not in here in person to take questions from the city council. This is not anything new.”
Councilman James Rogers, who serves on the Inland Port Authority Board, also raised frustrations to the mayor’s staff about an email pertaining to the inland port that he was still waiting to hear back on.
“I’d love you guys to call me,” Rogers said. “I’ve been waiting.”
“You know where to find me,” responded Patrick Leary, the mayor’s chief of staff.
“You guys are out there talking all sorts of s---,” Rogers said. “You can come and talk to me.”
Matthew Rojas, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the email Rogers came after Biskupski sent a letter to the council asking him to clarify his role on the board. She received no response, he said.
As Rogers left the meeting, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that he thought Biskupski’s comments outside the chambers were disrespectful to the council, which he said now has a seat at the table after months of poor leadership on the part of administration.
“She’s a failure at this inland port,” Rogers said. “And you can see it now because the only thing she’s doing now is digging in her heels and threatening a lawsuit. She’s never once called me to discuss what my strategy is. She’s never once called me to discuss where I’m at with the inland port. All it is is pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes and trying to make it a political win for her so that she has something to stand on so she can run for re-election.”
A poll conducted for UtahPolicy.com released last week found 56 percent of Salt Lake City residents don’t think Biskupski should receive a second term in office, and 29 percent of those said it was “definitely time for a new face.”
‘We want the radical solution’
The city’s public hearing came after the body held three separate fact-finding briefings on issues related to the port’s development. During those work session meetings, the council heard from environmental groups, community council leaders, state legislators and other policy makers in an effort to learn more about the port and hear concerns about its possible impacts.
“Our intention with this public hearing and the fact-finding sessions that we’ve held so far is to remain at the crux of the conversation between the community and the state and the port board as this advances,” Council Chair Erin Mendenhall said at Tuesday’s meeting. “... And then to communicate what our community is saying, what the council is hearing, to the port board for their consideration.”
The inland port will create a distribution hub for goods to be imported and exported via rail, truck and air on an area known to city leaders as the northwest quadrant.
During the public hearing, residents urged the council to advocate for a zero-emissions port and raised concerns about increased traffic congestion, air quality degradation, pollution and harm to wildlife and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
City administration is working to create an ordinance that would modify zoning in the area to allow inland port uses and aim to mitigate some of those impacts.
But some residents want to see the city do more.
“I think we’re concerned, as somebody pointed out, in mitigating the problem,” said Nancy Barrickman, a Salt Lake City resident and co-chair of the Salt Lake Democratic Socialists. “We don’t want to mitigate it. We want the radical solution. We want the opportunity to say zero — zero emissions in this inland port and think about innovation, technological solutions that will allow this to happen.”
Along with environmental concerns, several residents raised issues of transparency with the Inland Port Authority Board, which is responsible for leading economic development in the area. That body has faced criticism in recent weeks for shuttering the doors of its subcommittee meetings to the public.
The board reaffirmed that stance to keep those meetings closed at the end of last month, despite calls for transparency from a number of groups and lawmakers, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. The board argued that these meetings are not required to be open under the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act and that exceeding that standard would not be following the law.
But for some, the closed meetings represent a larger issue that began with the formation of the inland port and has continued throughout its development.
“The public has consistently been stifled in their attempt to advocate for just a seat at the table,” said Darin Mann, a former Democratic candidate for House District 24. “As our representatives … I really urge you to have us help you and encourage more public discourse with the Inland Port Board so we can have more open and transparent meetings, so we can all work together and find solutions for the inland port in a manner that benefits all of us — and not just a few individuals.”
Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized which entity was working on creating an ordinance that would modify zoning in the inland port area. It is the city administration.