With election near, Riverton City opts to leave UPD and form its own police agency, adding fuel to an issue in sheriff’s race

Rosie Rivera and Justin Hoyal

Riverton City on Wednesday announced its decision to split from the Unified Police Department it has been a founding member of since 2009 and form its own police department.

The move was approved by the City Council on a 3-2 vote Tuesday night during the final meeting before the Nov. 6 election that includes a Salt Lake County sheriff’s contest where this has become a campaign issue.

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs says it’s important the city get started on the move that will allow the city to field 10 to 12 more police officers without costing more than the $5.3 million annually it pays to UPD.

“I do believe our citizens will be greatly served by a Riverton Police Department more properly staffed with officers in our community,” Staggs said, indicating there is currently a $1.1 million value gap between the city’s UPD bill and services provided.

The first step in forming a new department by next July is hiring a police chief, an action authorized by the council.

The UPD’s costs, efficiency, transparency and the departure of member cities — Riverton and, previously, Herriman — have been an issue in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s race, with Republican hopeful Justin Hoyal laying blame at the feet of Sheriff Rosie Rivera.

“The current Sheriff, Rosie Rivera, is failing in her ability to lead this organization and bring people together," Hoyal, a UPD lieutenant, said in July when Riverton first signaled it’s intention to pull out of UPD. "I cannot stand by and allow her to continue to blame the previous administration for these issues while she has been the Sheriff for the past year and has done nothing to fix the problem.”

Rivera, a Democrat who was appointed after the midterm resignation of Sheriff Jim Winder last year, said Riverton’s departure wasn’t a surprise and will still leave the UPD in good shape with the remaining cities and townships seeing more transparency and local say than ever before. “It’s up to [Riverton officials] whether they want to self provide or not and we’re not going to stand in their way.”

But she was concerned about the timing — so close to an election in which UPD’s ability to hold onto Riverton has been a point of attack for her opponent, who is endorsed by a long list of Republicans as well as Winder, a Democrat.

“Two weeks before an election, thinking it’s going to help my opponent. I think the general public will see right through that, that it’s just politics,” Rivera said.

“My opponent does say it’s my fault, but he’s part of my leadership so why doesn’t he speak up? Is he going to wait until the election’s over and try and fix it then? That’s not good leadership,” Rivera said.

“The public will vote for who they think is best, to run this department and run the sheriff’s office. that’s just the way it is.”

Riverton spokesman Casey Saxton said the campaign was not part of the council’s calculation.

“As poor as the timing was, it really wasn’t even a consideration,” Saxton said. “The situation just called for it at this time and it really had nothing to do with the election. In fact, many members of our council have tremendous respect for Sheriff Rivera. She’s a Riverton resident and I think a lot of folks around here really like her.”

After signaling in July that the city would form its own police agency, Riverton pushed the pause button to give time for Rivera and the UPD leaders to address issues they said needed to be fixed. A one-month deadline was pushed back to September 20, then delayed again another month. “The council wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Saxton said.

Hoyal, contacted Wednesday afternoon, repeated his views of July that he believes action by the sheriff could have prevented the city’s departure.

“This is one of the reasons I believe we need a strong leader as the sheriff — one that can be responsive to the needs of our partner cities,” Hoyal said. “It’s sad to see them leave because they have been a valuable partner to this organization.”

“I don’t have any inclination it has anything to do with the political season," Hoyal said. “In my opinion, it’s probably just coincidence of the timing.”