‘Backroom plotting'? Salt Lake City mayor, inland port opponents deride whispers from port board members caught on tape

As the Utah Inland Port Authority Board listened to a presentation last week about the ongoing public outreach efforts for the massive distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost area, two of its members began to whisper.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, who also serves on the port board, had the night before released the text of a new bill that would both expand the scope of the inland port and prohibit any city from bringing a legal challenge against the future development. During the board meeting, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski — who has long been opposed to the port — issued a news release condemning that new legislation.

That’s when Board Chairman Derek Miller leaned over to Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, the vice chairman of the port board.

“Could you imagine how crazy Jackie would get if Jim Dabakis stepped in and said, you know … ‘I used to be in the Legislature, I’d like to work with the City Council?'” Miller whispered, referring to the former state senator who is challenging Biskupski in the city’s upcoming mayoral race. “‘I know the mayor won’t, but I’m going to see if we can’t get these things resolved?'” Miller continued imagining what Dabakis might say.

“The problem is I think some council members would freak out,” Rogers responded in a hushed tone.

“Well, you know that better than I do,” Miller replied in a hushed conversation that is audible, though difficult to hear at times, on an official recording of the board’s monthly meeting.

“I’m going to say something to Jim,” Miller can be heard saying shortly after.

“That’s a great idea,” Rogers agreed. While Miller has since defended his comments as simple speculation on the mayor’s engagement in the inland port process, both the mayor and advocates opposed to the port have condemned their conversation as evidence of behind-the-scenes political plotting made public. Critics includes Deeda Seed, a community activist with the Coalition for Port Reform, who brought the audio to The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday afternoon.

“What it says to me as a community member is there is this kind of backroom plotting happening that’s hyperpolitical and not really connected to good public policymaking or the interests of the community,” Seed said of the hushed discussion. “I mean, that was a political power play we heard and that’s how I interpreted it. They wanted to crush the opposition that the mayor is posing to HB433 and they were conspiring to get the support of the City Council.”

While the City Council has been involved with lawmakers in finding a compromise on the inland port development, Biskupski has been less amenable.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall listen as Sen. Jerry Stevenson answers questions about the inland port in a hearing during the 2018 legislative session.

In the statement she released the day of the inland port authority board’s Feb. 27 meeting, she called Gibson’s bill an attempt to “incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature’s will under the cover of cooperation.”

“Rather than seriously address the significant issues of transparency, environmental impact, and respect for local control, the bill released today reinforces the worst parts of the original legislation,” her statement continued. “This bill effectively creates a government entity, not only unaccountable to the community, but immune from judicial scrutiny, closing the courtroom door to local communities.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Biskupski echoed Seed’s comments and argued that the conversation between Rogers and Miller is evidence of “two leaders playing politics with our community.”

“I am as mayor consistently standing up for the values of this city and working to ensure that we have local control,” she told The Tribune. “That we are not the victims of dirty air, environmental issues. That our schools are looked out for. And that’s what I am focused on. Not the politics that are going on in these rooms with the people involved.”

A House committee voted to approve an amended version of Gibson’s bill Tuesday, which would allow the legislative body of a government to bring forward a legal challenge but not an executive or administrative branch — a provision that seems directly pointed at Biskupski.

Miller said Tuesday that he hopes his statements won’t further fracture the relationship between the city and the inland port board but stands by his comments.

“The recorder was sitting about a foot away from me and I knew it was running so I wasn’t concerned about being recorded,” he said, noting that he was whispering in an effort to avoid disrupting the ongoing presentation.

Rogers could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

After Gibson released his bill, Miller said there was “a lot of speculation going on from people in the community about how the mayor would respond” and whether she would engage in resolving any concerns with the proposal.

“The conversation was about speculation as to whether or not any of her mayoral opponents would get involved, and we specifically were talking about Jim Dabakis given the fact that he had done that in the last legislative session,” Miller said. “During the special session, he and Greg Hughes, who was then serving as the speaker of the House, had gotten together and announced that they were going to try to resolve some of the concerns that Salt Lake residents had. So that was the context for the conversation.”

Dabakis, one among a field of six other challengers to Biskupski in this year’s election, ultimately weighed in on the inland port in a tweet on Tuesday warning the Legislature to “back off on inland port.”

“With the tremendous damage they did last year, it seems to me that if they come back this year, it ought to be reparations,” he told The Tribune later. “It ought to be about understanding and it ought to be about building trust, not doubling down on what they did.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Then-Sen. Jim Dabakis talks about the inland port during a special session of the Legislature at the Utah state Capitol, July 18, 2018.

Dabakis said he was surprised to hear his name come up in the port board meeting but said “people talk to each other in hearings, you know? It didn’t seem that big of a deal, frankly.”

Dabakis said he has no specific loyalty to the board but would work to negotiate with its members to ensure positive outcomes for Salt Lake City residents.

“I certainly am going to attend the meetings,” he said. “I’m going to be up there with the Legislature. I certainly am going to be completely, totally active in representing the wishes of the people of Salt Lake.… From my perspective, you get more done when you’re at the table and when you’re negotiating and when you’re going back and forth.”

Miller said Tuesday that he continues to hope Biskupski will get involved in the inland port process.

“The purpose of my comment [in the meeting] and my continued purpose is for the mayor’s office to be engaged, not just in the bill specifically but in the process generally,” she said. “I hope she will.”

In an interview with The Deseret News on Monday, Biskupski noted that Cindy Gust-Jenson, the council’s executive director, has an uncle who owns business property within the inland port area, and the mayor questioned whether she is giving the council unbiased policy advice.

“The chink in the armor on this one issue is Cindy Gust-Jenson, who is driving them and guides them on most things and guiding them on a journey they feel like they have no other path,” Biskupski told the newspaper — comments that were derided by members of the City Council and by Gust-Jenson, who said she has been “obsessed with transparency” during her more than 30 year tenure with the city.

But in her interview with The Tribune on Tuesday, a much more subdued Biskupski declined to talk about Gust-Jenson.

“The city thing is not part of this big picture,” she said. “The big picture is what the state is doing to the city, and I think that’s the important story here.”

City Council Chairman Charlie Luke read a letter from the council at its meeting on Tuesday addressing the mayor’s comments about its executive director and asking Biskupski to apologize for making an “incorrect public accusation against a respected city employee" who they noted has remained in her position as dozens of council members and a half dozen mayors have come and gone.

Gust-Jenson works for and answers to the council, the letter reads — not the other way around.

“The council decided we would do the hard work of representing Salt Lake City residents and businesses rather than wash our hands of the difficult task. The Council made those calls, because we know it’s our job as elected officials to actually engage in difficult conversations and negotiations when the City’s interests are on the line," Luke read aloud, a thinly veiled criticism of Biskupski’s boycott of negotiations with the Legislature.

"Cindy has never and would never try to personally benefit from her role,” the letter concludes. "It is irresponsible and hurtful for Mayor Biskupski to suggest otherwise. We stand emphatically with Cindy and ask the mayor to apologize for making an incorrect public accusation against a respected city employee.”