Air quality takes center stage at first major Salt Lake City mayoral candidate debate

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) All eight of the candidates for Salt Lake City mayor gather for a debate at the Salt Lake City Library on Wed. June 26, 2019, which includes, from left, David Garbett, Abi Olufeko standing in for Rainer Huck, David Ibarra, Jim Dabakis, Richard Goldberger, Stan Penfold, Erin Mendenhall and Luz Escamilla. The debate was hosted by the ABU Education Fund and the University of Utah’s John R. Park Debate Society and moderated by Averie Vockel.

The crowded field of candidates vying to lead Salt Lake City squeezed onstage together Wednesday night at the downtown library for the first major debate of the campaign.

There, the mayoral hopefuls presented their own visions for the city — and though they seemed largely in step on issues relating to the inland port and homelessness, they disagreed on who was best positioned to manage air quality, which some candidates cited as the No. 1 issue facing the city.

Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who early polls show is the front-runner in the race, advocated for free UTA fares within city boundaries and for city taxpayers as a way to promote transit ridership and improve air quality.

“Free UTA only brings in 11% of the budget,” he said. “We can do that. We can pull those cars off. We can pay for it just by the money we’re going to save in roads. This is something pragmatic that can happen and it needs leadership and a good liaison with the state. I can do that.”

Earlier this year, UTA and other partners offered three free-fare days, which increased overall ridership about 16%, according to UTA officials. The agency estimated about 10,500 vehicles were removed from the road each those days and had prevented more than 2.5 tons of pollutants and 80 tons of greenhouse gases daily.

“Thank you, Jim,” responded current state Sen. Luz Escamilla when he had finished. “I will be the liaison with the state. I actually have experience passing bills in the Legislature and I think that’s important.”

With a jab at her former legislative colleague’s record — Dabakis had a reputation as more bomb-thrower than bill-passer — Escamilla pointed to her success passing legislation to increase the statute of limitations for polluters and said if she was elected mayor she would work with the state to partner on other initiatives, as well as work to decrease vehicle emissions.

But Dabakis sought to turn those triumphs around on his opponent.

“I do want you to be the liaison,” he joked to laughter from the audience. “You’re the best senator, so you can be there. I’ll call you while you’re on the Senate floor.”

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who serves on the State Air Quality Board and got her entrance into politics through air-quality advocacy, touted her own record on the issue over the years but noted that there’s a long way to go. “We have to accelerate our transition to renewable energy faster than we have scheduled to today,” she said. “And next year when we negotiate that contract with Rocky Mountain Power, I want to be your mayor at the table that makes sure we get that clean energy into our city faster than it’s scheduled to today.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is not seeking a second term, has promised residents net-100% renewable energy by 2030, but Mendenhall and other mayoral hopefuls have criticized even that expedited timeline as not aggressive enough.

Mendenhall also advocated for growing the city’s bus network to get people out of their cars, raising environmental building standards within the city and working with the state to expand programs to get rid of dirty lawnmowers and snowblowers.

David Garbett, the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, pointed to his time as a staff attorney on the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance fighting for environmental sustainability as a reason voters should choose him to lead forward on air quality issues.

The city needs to “put together an actual plan for how we get to clean air so we know what every single step does for us,” he said. “That is the key step the city has to take and I will provide that leadership we’ve lacked at the state level and at the county level. That’s step No. 1. Two is the litigation wing at the city attorney’s office and three is we have to move the refinery and the power plant. These are things that I’ll pursue as mayor.”

David Ibarra, a local businessman, advocated for a holistic approach to the issue that involves getting more people into affordable housing so they have shorter commutes and pollute less.

“The key is the affordable housing, moving people into the city,” he said. “And again, I’m going to talk about that electric autonomous people-mover that can bring people from five miles out inside the city. … We’ve got to think beyond ourselves.”

Many of the mayoral hopefuls noted that Salt Lake City does not exist in a bubble and talked about the importance of strong partnerships with the state to address air quality. But former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold criticized that approach.

“I do find it more than moderately entertaining to listen to mostly minority party members up here talking about how we’re going to change the state of Utah,” he said to laughter from the audience.

Instead, he said he would focus on what the city could accomplish through providing free fare days — an experiment he’d championed at the city and that he said would be fully implemented within his first 100 days if elected as mayor — and by working with government partners in the valley.

Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, said he would like to see all city vehicles brought up to factory specification in order to reduce pollution and also advocated for an idea called a “butt mobile” that would pick up cigarette butts in an effort to get rid of hazardous waste in city streets.

Rainer Huck, an ATV activist, had an asthma attack prior to the debate and was not able to attend but sent a proxy from his campaign in his place named Abi Olufeko.

Olufeko, on behalf of Huck’s campaign, was the only person on stage who said air quality is not a pressing issue facing the city. Self-driving cars will take care of any issues, he said.

“The Huck campaign believes this air quality situation is a misdirection for very serious issues, such as police brutality, such as crime and many other noninclusive issues that are facing Salt Lake City,” he said. “So when elected as mayor, I think that Dr. Huck is not going to pay much attention to this situation as he would the situation of police brutality and such things like that.”