Salt Lake City mayoral candidates spar over their records on the inland port

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Downtown Alliance hosts a Salt Lake City mayoral debate between Erin Mendenhall, left, and Luz Escamilla at the Regent Street Black Box at Eccles Theater on Wednesday, October 9, 2019.

Both Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla are opposed to the inland port, a future development that is among the most controversial — and complicated — policy considerations facing the capital city’s next leader.

But at Thursday’s debate focused on environmental issues, the candidates running for Salt Lake City mayor attacked each other’s records on the project, a massive international distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side. And each candidate aimed to position herself as the best to move forward on the issue.

“We need a mayor who can actually work with the state,” Mendenhall said, noting her negotiations with the Legislature after it took control of Salt Lake City’s land and taxing authority in the area in 2018. “Because they are working on us otherwise. They are stealing from us and they are overriding our core municipal functions.”

Escamilla argued that she is the candidate who would be best able to work with the Legislature after November’s election to produce positive outcomes for the city because of her personal relationships on the Hill.

And though the port largely came into public consciousness after the Legislature passed the bill creating it with little debate in the final hours of the session last year, Escamilla questioned the city’s role in its creation. She pointed particularly to the City Council’s decision to rezone the land in the area for manufacturing as part of its Northwest Quadrant Master Plan — a move she argues set the area up to become a port.

“When you look at the two parties to blame, of course you have a Republican Legislature that loves to do land grabbing and take over things,” she said, noting that she had voted against the project. “But we also have a city that I don’t think acted well through this whole process.”

The two-hour debate was hosted by a number of environmental groups, including Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Nearly 45 minutes of the conversation focused on the inland port, which has sparked protests and concerns about air quality and effects on wildlife, even as proponents argue it will benefit the state’s economy by connecting Utah companies to international markets.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police stand guard after a meeting of an inland port satellite working group was quickly canceled. The meeting was held at a police precinct in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Aug. 14, 2019.

During the debate, Escamilla also criticized Mendenhall’s vote for a $28 million tax increment reimbursement for a developer to build a 3,000-acre industrial site within the inland port area, which many saw as the first step in building out the project.

Mendenhall called her opponent’s description of that vote and of the council’s role in creating the port “revisionist history.”

If the council had opposed the agreement, she said, the city would have been in breach of contract and control of the development’s 378 acres could be turned over to the state. The municipality had retained jurisdiction over the land in question because of agreements that were in place prior to the Legislature’s action.

“The alternative is not no port or what the city’s doing,” Mendenhall said. “The alternative is the state of Utah rolls us and takes it over. And I do not trust, we do not trust, the state Legislature to put our values first and they have made that abundantly clear. So let’s be clear. This isn’t about, ‘Do you want an inland port or not?’ This is, ‘Do you want the state to run it or keep it in Salt Lake City?’”

Mendenhall pointed out Thursday that she had helped to negotiate several positive changes to the original bill creating the port authority with the Legislature after Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskuspki declined to participate in conversations with the state.

Among the amendments the city obtained under Mendenhall’s leadership as council chairwoman was a reduction in the size of the port area that removed environmentally sensitive wetlands, a carve-out of 10% of the tax increment from the port to be set aside for affordable housing and a clarification of the port authority’s land use appeal process as a last resort.

“It was meaningful progress for our city and for our economy,” she said. “And by the way, Sen. Escamilla voted against every one of those. I don’t take protest votes. There’s no room for protest votes on the City Council. I’m grateful for our Democrats on the Hill, but when it comes down to it, we need a mayor who can actually get us results in this horrible situation of the inland port.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of the Salt Lake Valley including the new prison under construction, inland port area, Kennecott Copper tailings pond, refineries and recent Bountiful fire scar as seen on Sept. 12, 2019.

Escamilla, who voted against both the original bill creating the Utah Inland Port Authority and the modified bill the council had negotiated with lawmakers, pushed back on that assessment of her record.

“It’s not a protest vote when you’re actually dealing with all the things that are happening to represent the values of your constituency,” said Escamilla, who lives in the Rose Park neighborhood on the city’s west side. “That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 11 years and I’ll continue doing as mayor of Salt Lake City.”

The candidate noted that she had sponsored legislation establishing baseline environmental conditions in the port area to monitor any changes as a result of the project and also called Thursday for the state to fund a health impact assessment of the projoect, which anti-port activists have been calling for.

If the Legislature won’t, she said, the city should absorb that cost.

“This is desperate times and requires desperate maneuvers,” she said.

Both candidates have expressed support for continuing Biskupski’s lawsuit against the creation of the port, a hearing on which is expected to come next month. But Escamilla noted that her opponent had voted with the rest of the council in an effort to stop the mayor from filing that lawsuit to begin with unless she had the legislative body’s approval.

Mendenhall, who got her entrance into politics through air quality work, said Thursday that she sees that litigation as one part of her overall strategy in trying to protect the environment from the consequences of the port. The second component, she said, is legislative negotiations with the state, which “could be possible with the right climate of a relationship.”

Finally, she said, the city needs to work to mitigate the effects of development — a process the council has already done in part through passage last year of regulations aimed at the port. Mendenhall voted in favor of those rules, which prohibit heavy industrial uses in the planned port area that could have significant air quality impacts in favor of light industry and that will require companies proposing more impactful uses, like railroad freight terminals or recycling process centers, to complete an environmental mitigation plan.

“We have to have a multi-faceted approach to how we address this and we have to get started now,” she said at the debate.

Escamilla said she agreed that the lawsuit is the first process in a larger fight against the port. She also wants the city to move forward with mitigation efforts, in part with data gleaned from the bill she sponsored this year, and to fight to move the port out of what she sees as an un-developable area.

“We really need to get it out of Salt Lake and at least push as much as we can,” she said. “The reality is we first have to protect here because it’s where we have the worst air quality and crisis situation.”