Calling for ‘better council members,’ Biskupski delivers blistering criticism of Salt Lake City Council over inland port

As Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski announced her plans to amend a lawsuit she filed against the state earlier this year, she said she was “ashamed” of the role the City Council has played in the development project she’s contesting.

The mayor and council have often found themselves on different wavelengths when it comes to the inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for approximately ⅓ of the city’s northwest area. And, calling for “better council members,” she criticized them again on Monday for attempting last year to block her from filing a lawsuit against the project unless she first obtained their permission and for taking part in negotiations on the development.

“Every single one of them needs to be held accountable,” she told a group of more than 60 anti-port activists during a meeting at the Corrine & Jack Sweet Library. “And I don’t care what they say today about the lawsuit — they are not standing with me, and they certainly will not stand with me when I have my amended complaint filed with the court based on the new legislation, and they will not be walking with me to serve papers to the governor or the authority or anyone else. They’ll be hiding. I guarantee it.”

During the more than hour-long update on the lawsuit, the mayor said she expects the complaint — which is being updated in response to recent changes in state law — will be finished and served to the state and the Inland Port Authority Board within the next month.

The city fought the bill creating the inland port, which passed late on the eve of the final day of last year’s legislative session, over protests of state overreach, loss of millions of dollars in tax revenues and a worrisome precedent for future state “land grabs.” But while the council proceeded to work with the Legislature and the Inland Port Authority Board, the mayor boycotted negotiations with the state altogether.

Council Chairman Charlie Luke acknowledged Monday evening that the administration and legislative body have taken “different paths” but expressed commitment to ensuring the project is sustainable and represents the city’s interests.

“The Council hasn’t taken the luxury of sitting back hoping to have our city saved by the mayor’s litigation,” he wrote in a statement. “We are here to figure this out for the long term. We’ve made progress and will continue working to make more progress to protect the environment and Salt Lake City.”

Amid mounting public opposition to the project, the mayor’s lawsuit has also become a major campaign issue for those vying to replace her. And Biskupski not only criticized the council on Monday but also those candidates, most of whom she insinuated are supporting her lawsuit as a political tactic to generate votes.

“You have to be extremely diligent in your decision making around who you trust to carry this lawsuit forward,” she told the port opponents. “They’re all saying ‘I will do it,’ but I am telling you there is only one person in this race who has stood with me from the beginning. One out of all eight candidates. One. And that is Sen. [Luz] Escamilla.”

Though Biskupski told The Salt Lake Tribune afterward that she was not officially endorsing Escamilla in the race, she praised the senator’s past votes on the port, as well as her sponsorship of a bill to establish baseline environmental conditions in the port area planned for to monitor any changes as a result of the project.

The mayor was particularly critical Monday of City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who is running for mayor and who served as council chairwoman during the consequential negotiations on the port with the Legislature last year.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall launches her campaign for mayor on Sunday April 14, 2019. She enters the race with six years of council experience serving the city’s Ballpark, Central City, Central 9th, East Liberty Park, Liberty Wells and Wasatch Hollow communities. She has a background in the nonprofit sector, working previously with the clean-air advocacy group Breathe Utah as its policy director and interim executive director.

“She has never stood with me,” Biskupski said in response to a question about Mendenhall’s stance on the project. “In fact, she brokered the first deal in the summer of 2018 ... she led the charge on the legislation to prohibit me from suing. So there’s no wishy washy there.”

Mendenhall, who has told The Salt Lake Tribune she would support the continuation of the lawsuit if elected as mayor, said Monday that stance is “in no way contingent” upon her role as a candidate. She also noted that the council’s efforts to block the mayor from filing litigation was to ensure the council, which provides budgetary oversight, was involved in such a decision.

“Regarding my work as the chair on the legislation, I believe it’s the job of the mayor to represent the city and the taxpayers, no matter what the situation is,” she wrote. “And that means that even when the circumstances are not as she prefers, it is her job to remain at that table on behalf of her residents. And she wasn’t willing to do that.”

In a news release sent out on Tuesday, Mendenhall called Biskupski a “failed mayor” and said her comments were a “good illustration” of why Mendenhall decided to enter the race for mayor.

“Salt Lake City deserves better leadership, and not just on the Inland Port,” she said. “Look at our broken roads. Look at our unsustainable housing market. Look at our air quality. We deserve a mayor who has the expertise to make the city government work for the people, who has the energy to do the hard work, and the experience to work with the community, not against it.”

While the mayor has received criticism from many over her handling of the inland port project, those at the meeting on Monday lauded her efforts.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, called Biskupski the port opponents’ “single greatest champion.”

“She has been from the very moment the Legislature dumped this horrible proposal on Salt Lake City,” Seed said. “And I am so proud that she’s our mayor and so grateful that she’s taken on this cause in a powerful way.”

Biskupski wouldn’t say Monday whether the amended lawsuit would include an injunction to keep the port project from moving forward, but she did say she thinks the bill that prompted the update “helps us legally.”

HB433, which passed earlier this year, looks to shift the development from its focus on a single site in the capital to a multisite approach that would include rural areas across the state. The legislation allows interested communities the chance to approve a port development in their area — an option she noted the state did not offer to Salt Lake City.