Last year, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and members of the City Council found themselves on different pages on a law creating a massive distribution hub in the northwesternmost part of the city. Biskupski declined to take part in those negotiations, and she forbade her staff from getting involved, as well.

That left council members to fend for themselves, without the assistance of the more than half dozen lobbyists the city employs, said City Council Chairman Charlie Luke. The council vowed it wouldn’t be put in that position again.

Now, in a split from administration that’s only happened twice in more than 20 years, the council has its own lobbyists working on Capitol Hill during this year’s state legislative session.

“Typically we’ve always just used the same city lobbyists,” Luke told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview. “This year was a little bit different based on some of the events from last year with the administration. And so, you know, we felt that it was going to be important especially this session to have representation that we knew that we would always have access to.”

The council’s three new lobbyists join nine who serve both the City Council and the administration. Each of the six firms the city employs works on particular policy areas, which range from housing to water and airport issues, according to Matthew Rojas, a spokesman in the mayor’s office.

“All of these lobbyists work with the council,” he said. “They meet with the council on a regular basis, as they’re representing the city as a whole on Capitol Hill.”

Rojas said he couldn’t provide an exact number for how much the city spends on lobbying efforts, since the funding comes out of different departmental budgets. The council put aside $60,000 for lobbyists during its last annual budget process, according to council staff. (The council’s lobbyists did not show up on the state’s lobbyist list Thursday and appear to have registered later that day after The Tribune’s inquiry.)

Rojas praised the council’s lobbyists in this session for “doing a lot of the heavy lifting” on a proposal that would have altered state annexation law, giving Millcreek the upper hand in a boundary dispute between it and Salt Lake City over the Brickyard Plaza shopping center. The bill’s sponsor has since abandoned the measure.

Other issues the council’s lobbyists are working on include questions related to the inland port and to car sharing at the airport, Luke said, as well as general issues with the city’s regular contract lobbyists.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke speaks at a news conference on the current status of House Bill 252, Electronic Cigarette and Other Nicotine Product Amendments. Wednesday Feb. 27, 2019 in Salt Lake City.

“Right now everyone’s working together, which, frankly, is how it should be,” said Luke, who is himself a registered lobbyist for service providers for people with intellectual disabilities. “And so you know, [the council’s lobbyists] are just an added member to an already really good team.”

But the council and administration, who have often butted heads in the past, may be glad they have separate lobbyists after a bill was introduced Tuesday by Rep. Francis Gibson that would make changes to the inland port bill that first divided the two branches.

Lawmakers unveiled and passed the original bill creating the inland port board late on the eve of the final day of last year’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. The most controversial provision of the most recent proposal would remove the city’s ability to bring a legal challenge forward on the development.

While Luke told The Tribune the council’s lobbying team has been working with Gibson to “resolve some of the concerns we have” with the proposal, Biskupski said in a statement that the new bill shows that “any attempt to negotiate in good faith over this unprecedented bill will be met with goal shifting on the part of the State, designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature’s will under the cover of cooperation.”

NUMBER OF LOBBYISTS FOR UTAH’S LARGEST CITIES
∙ Salt Lake City, 12 lobbyists
∙ Sandy, 9 lobbyists
∙ West Valley City, 7 lobbyists
∙ West Jordan, 5 lobbyists
∙ Ogden, 4 lobbyists
∙ Provo, 4 lobbyists
∙ Orem, 3 lobbyists
∙ Layton, 2 lobbyists
∙ Taylorsville, 2 lobbyists
∙ St. George, 0 lobbyists
- State lobbyist registry

Relationships, relationships, relationships

It has become common in recent years for cities to employ lobbyists to represent their interests during the state’s 45-day legislative session — a practice that has come to be seen as a necessity.

Every city in Salt Lake County employs at least one lobbyist, and St. George is the only one of the state’s 10 biggest cities that has none, according to information on the Utah lieutenant governor’s office’s lobbyist database. Three cities have decreased the number of lobbyists they employ over the past five years, while Orem, Provo, Salt Lake City and West Valley City have upped their count.

“Cities hire lobbyists because of the fact that we are regularly reminded that cities are political subdivisions of the state,” Luke told The Tribune. “There are always going to be issues that impact cities and our residents and businesses located therein, we need to make sure that we’re staying on top of every single issue.”

Former Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan was the first Utah leader to decide that a big lobbying team was the key to success. He hired his first lobbyist about three years after he was first elected in 1994, and the city for years fielded the biggest crew of any local government at the Capitol, employing 13 lobbyists in 2015.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn announced during a news conference on April 24, 2018, that the city had fired Sandy Police Chief Kevin Thacker. Bradburn during the 2017 election criticized then-Mayor Tom Dolan for spending so much tax money on city lobbyists. Bradburn has thinned the ranks of them since he took office.

That number has decreased slightly after now-Mayor Kurt Bradburn defeated Dolan in 2017 and proceeded to eliminate four city lobbyist positions.

“I think he felt like we were overspending on lobbyists and felt like these resources could have been directed to other things,” said Sandy Deputy Mayor Evelyn Everton. “For instance, last year because we did cut back on those we were able to increase salary pay for police and fire.”

But that doesn’t mean the city, which spends $200,000 per year for state lobbying efforts and $60,000 at the federal level, doesn’t see the value in maintaining a robust team.

“We’re continuing to see the same return on investment in terms of securing state and federal funding for road projects and transportation,” Everton said, noting that the city’s lobbyists are also working to support legislation that would streamline annexation processes and to get state funding for the Sandy Arts Guild. “We feel like we’re spending less but we’re getting just the same amount of value that we were before.”

Even cities that don’t hire a contract lobbyist still have representation on Capitol Hill, thanks to the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which represents all 248 cities in the state. The League is currently tracking 316 bills that impact local government in some way and has six full time employees and one intern dedicated to tracking bills, according to Cameron Diehl, a spokesman for the organization.

“We’re very busy," he said.

NUMBER OF LOBBYISTS FOR SALT LAKE COUNTY CITIES
∙ Bluffdale, 1 lobbyist
∙ Cottonwood Heights 5 lobbyists
∙ Draper, 3 lobbyists
∙ Herriman, 4 lobbyists
∙ Holladay, 2 lobbyists
∙ Midvale, 4 lobbyists
∙ Millcreek, 2 lobbyists
∙ Riverton, 3 lobbyists
∙ Salt Lake City, 12 lobbyists
∙ Sandy, 9 lobbyists
∙ South Jordan, 3 lobbyists
∙ South Salt Lake, 3 lobbyists
∙ Taylorsville, 2 lobbyists
∙ West Jordan, 5 lobbyists
∙ West Valley City, 7 lobbyists
- State lobbyist registry

Lobbyists are necessary, Diehl says, because lawmakers may not understand the impacts a proposal could have on the ability of cities to function and provide services to residents. Much of his work, then, is to “tell the story” for cities on issues that range from land use to public safety and transportation.

Among the many bills the League has taken a stance on this year include a proposal that would prevent someone from serving on both a city council and a county commission at the same time (supporting), another that would help cities enforce their anti-idling ordinances (supporting) and a bill that would permit cars to run red lights in some conditions (opposing).

“Our objective is to help cities work,” Diehl said. “And our objective is to make sure that we have a strong partnership between state and local governments to ensure the quality of life that all the residents expect.”

Lobbyist and Murray City Councilman Dave Nicponski understands both sides of the coin and has a diverse client list that includes Taylorsville City, the Utah Humane Society and Intermountain Healthcare. With more than 30 years of experience on Capitol Hill, Nicponski said he has good relationships with many lawmakers and sees his job as “accessing the lawmaker in order to present them the city’s perspective — and hopefully in a fashion that they’re able to make a decision based on what you’ve represented.”

As bills get more complex at the state Legislature, Nicponski argues there’s a continued need for cities to employ lobbyists who understand the process and have relationships with the players so they can articulate how a particular policy would affect cities.

But the increased willingness of cities to employ their own lobbyists is also a function of these contractors proving their worth, he said.

“We had to work at showing that we were ethical, proving that we were effective," Nicponski said. "And that’s why at the beginning you didn’t see a lot of lobbyists representing cities. But over time, because we’ve proven these things — our ethics, our capabilities — you’ve seen cities hire lobbyists.”