Salt Lake County mayoral candidates outline visions on affordable housing and climate change

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The four candidates for Salt Lake County mayor face off in a debate at Jordan High School in Sandy on Thursday Jan. 24, 2019. From left, Arlyn Bradshaw, Shireen Ghorbani, Jenny Wilson, and Stone Fonua.

Sandy ∙ At the Salt Lake County mayoral debate at Jordan High School on Thursday evening, the four candidates outlined their plans for the county moving forward and how they would tackle some of its most immediate challenges.

The county Democratic Party’s roughly 1,100 central committee members will have the final say on who will fill the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams. Ahead of that vote Saturday at Corner Canyon High School, they’re weighing not only vision, but also who would be best positioned to keep the seat in 2020.

“You’re making a big decision,” candidate Shireen Ghorbani told the central committee members assembled in the high school auditorium on Thursday. “This is a decision for 1.2 million people. And it’s a decision about what kind of Democrat, what kind of voice, you want in the county mayor’s office.”

Two of the candidates serve on the County Council — Jenny Wilson and Arlyn Bradshaw — and emphasized during the debate their extensive experience with and knowledge of the county. They’ve also both made history on the council: Wilson in 2004 became the first woman to serve on the body and Bradshaw became the first openly gay member in 2010.

Ghorbani, a former congressional candidate and a communication professional at the University of Utah, portrayed herself as the candidate who would bring fresh blood and bold ideas to the mayoral office. And Stone Fonua, a former police officer who has run and lost for multiple public offices under different party affiliations, used the debate as an opportunity to get his ideas into the public arena.

While Fonua has said he won’t run for the seat in 2020, the others have committed to campaign in a race that will begin almost immediately after appointment.

Salt Lake County is one of the few governmental bodies in which Utah Democrats are represented in large numbers, and the candidates said they would use that position to push the progressive policies they outlined during the debate on affordable housing and carbon emissions.

“A county mayor must speak up for the issues that are most important to the residents of our valley; oftentimes that is counter to what the Legislature is doing. I have the ability to disagree on policy without demeaning the other individual,” said Bradshaw, who called himself a “bridge builder” who has worked well with members of the council’s Republican majority.

Wilson, an at-large county councilwoman, said she would work across the aisle but would also be firm in pushing changes after shifts in the 2018 election, when Democrats flipped the Salt Lake County recorder position, a U.S. House seat and gained several spots in the state Legislature.

“We have more political capital than we have had in the past, and this mayor needs to spend that political capital,” she said. “... It’s important that the mayor knows how to use the bully pulpit but also knows how to go in the room and negotiate.”

Affordable housing

Recent research estimates that Utah has a housing gap of at least 43,500 dwellings and that as many as 100,000 households are putting 50 percent or more of their income toward housing costs. It’s part of what some have called an affordable housing “crisis” that will likely worsen as the state adds an expected 1.5 million new residents by 2050.

To solve that, Wilson, Bradshaw and Ghorbani advocate using tax-increment policies to provide incentives to communities and developers to make affordable housing a priority. Bradshaw proposes that 20 percent of development projects receive an economic development incentive to fit into that category.

“Additionally, we need to pursue creative financing models and encourage developers to consider different ways so first time home buyers can have access to housing,” he said. “And finally, we need better protection for tenants. People should not be evicted for minor violations or minor delinquencies and we should be able to help them stay in their homes.”

The candidates said high-density housing needs to be part of the solution — but it’s a burden municipalities across the county must share and it needs to be coupled with appropriate transit solutions, they said.

“What I would like to ensure — what I would do — is bring those mayors together across the municipalities, across the townships, to ensure that density is not just a reality that one township or one area of this valley is facing, but it’s something we do together,” Ghorbani said.

Bradshaw supports creation of a countywide master plan for housing that would help Salt Lake County partner with municipalities to identify where high-density is most appropriate.

And Wilson said there needs to be a cultural shift in how cities and their residents perceive high-density development.

“It’s interesting that density has been seen as a bad word for a long time,” she said. “I think communities are starting to get it. The county again doesn’t have an ability to force it, frankly. But what the mayor can and should do is lead and connect and create along with the Wasatch Front Regional Council, our planning authority, the right framework for this. And I think that’s where we can do more on this issue.”

Fonua said the affordable housing crunch could be solved with estate creation, an idea he came up with that he says would decrease poverty and provide opportunity to future generations.

Climate change and sustainability

The state has struggled to meet federal limits for ozone, an airborne pollutant that is particularly harmful to children, and it will likely miss a critical 2019 federal deadline for meeting air-quality standards. Those challenges are likely to be exacerbated with growth.

At the debate, the mayoral candidates all expressed support for a countywide anti-idling ordinance, which would expand an effort some cities have taken. At least five municipalities in Salt Lake County have citywide ordinances: Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Sandy, Holladay and Murray. All allow for a two-minute idle before a motorist is in violation of the rule.

Wilson said she also would advocate solutions at the federal level. And she wants to look at ways to counteract efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to roll back tailpipe emissions regulations.

“I will continue to require any partners that we have [with the county] stay at our current levels,” she said. “Donald Trump is saying, ‘It’s okay, Utah. Your air can get worse.’ That is not okay.”

Ghorbani said she wanted to look at policies on the local level. Salt Lake County only has one employee who looks at energy management, she noted, and she advocated for creation of a team that could better quantify the government’s energy use.

“One energy manager is certainly not enough for us to even know what the carbon footprint is of the county and all our activities,” she said. “We need to be investing now to expand an energy management program so we know exactly what our worst polluting buildings are and to make sure that we as part of the county are not part of the problem,” she said.

Bradshaw promoted policies on both the state and county level.

“In addition to putting continued pressure on the state to regulate industry, at Salt Lake County we can get our own house in order,” he said. “I propose a telecommute policy for county employees that those who can work remotely — we have about 4,000 of them — don’t drive on yellow and red air days.”

He also wants to take a look at the county’s fleet of vehicles to ensure they are energy efficient and burn the cleanest fuel possible and to see the Utah Transit Authority become a free fare system, at least on yellow and red air days.

Fonua’s approach to climate change took a different approach, targeting individual responsibility.

“Let’s use golf carts as a second car to run down to the grocery store, go to church, do something else,” he said. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”