Salt Lake City mayor, council feud bubbles into public view

(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.

The long-contentious relationship between the Salt Lake City mayor and City Council has bubbled into public view, as one council member responded to Jackie Biskupski’s call for “better council members” by calling her a “failed mayor.”

City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who is running for mayor, made that statement the day after Biskupski offered a blistering criticism of the legislative body at a meeting with inland port opponents Monday night. There, the mayor derided council members for taking part in negotiations on the development and said “every single one of them needs to be held accountable” for the role they played.

In a news release Tuesday, Mendenhall said Biskupski’s comments were a “good illustration” of why she entered the race.

“Salt Lake City deserves better leadership, and not just on the inland port,” she wrote. “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. I’m not going to stop fighting for this city, no matter how ugly the situation gets.”

The inland port, a distribution hub development planned for a large swath of the city’s northwest side, has been a major point of friction between the city’s legislative and administrative bodies.

Last year, they lobbied the Legislature on different sides of the law creating the project, with Biskupski declining to take part in negotiations with the state and forbidding her staff from getting involved, as well.

The council voted last summer to block her from filing a lawsuit against the project without its permission; and months later, several members learned of her plan to move forward with litigation only when The Salt Lake Tribune reached out for comment.

Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton said Tuesday that there’s more the council and administration agree on when it comes to the port project than divides them.

“We’re all on the team for Salt Lake City,” he said. “We’re all on the team for having environmental quality, for having economic justice for people on the west side, for developing — if something is going to be developed — that it be done responsibly and it be done with the city’s taxing authority in place and having the city represented at the table. I don’t think anybody disagrees with that, and we’ve all been on board with that from the beginning."

But the contentions often go deeper than the inland port.

In the city’s most recent budget cycle, for example, the City Council took more control over spending for affordable housing by moving management of nearly $2.59 million in housing loans away from the administration-controlled Housing and Neighborhood Development division, known as HAND — setting up a new power struggle with the mayor in the process.

And several City Council members told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that meetings with the mayor have become more infrequent over the past few months. The mayor generally sends a proxy from her team, according to Council Chairman Charlie Luke.

Councilwoman Amy Fowler said in an interview that she believes there’s tension between “every administration” and council but hopes whomever voters choose next to lead the city forward will take a different approach in working with the legislative body.

“I hope the next mayor would recognize the council is here to work with and support and help and we might not always agree on things but I think if we’re all sitting at the table and having the tough conversations together, we’re going to get further than if we’re shooting arrows at each other from across the bow,” she said.

During her more than hourlong comments at the meeting on Monday, Biskupski criticized not only council members but also most of the eight candidates running for mayor — insinuating that they were 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 Senator [Luz] Escamilla.”

While Biskupski was particularly critical of Mendenhall, she also made veiled jabs at former Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who voted against the original bill creating the inland port during the 2018 legislative session but was one of the architects of the amended bill that was passed in a special session that summer.

“An incoming mayor could choose to pull the lawsuit,” she said on Monday. “That is real. So whether I’m an incoming mayor who voted for the bill or I’m an incoming mayor who brokered the deal, those individuals can pull the lawsuit and end it in January.”

Dabakis has said he is fully supportive of the mayor’s lawsuit moving forward and told The Tribune on Tuesday that he’s long been an active and vocal opponent of the project.

“It’s a much better fallback to have the very, very bad bill than the one that would have led to the destruction of the west side, both from a clean air as well as an ecological perspective,” he said of his efforts to negotiate while at the Legislature, noting that the new bill addressed some of the concerns about tax-and-spending authority and the environmental impacts of the port.

David Garbett, the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, is one of several candidates who has recently staked out a stronger stance against the inland port and in favor of the mayor’s lawsuit — a shift he said was based on additional research and conversations with community members and had nothing to do with generating votes.

If elected, he said he would make it a priority to heal the divisions between the council and administration.

“The city can’t be effective if the council and mayor are going in different directions," he said. “I think this is about the mayor putting in that time with council members — actually being consistent about that, working with them. I don’t think it’s rocket science.”