Erin Mendenhall says she’ll take ‘immediate steps’ on air quality the day she takes mayor’s office

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall discusses the transition to her administration at the City and County Building on Nov. 7, 2019. Mendenhall said she will follow through quickly to make clean air a priority of her administration. She also has the goal of creating a better working relationship between the mayor's office and the city council.

On day one of her new administration, Salt Lake City Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall said she plans to take a number of “immediate steps” to improve the capital’s poor air quality.

She will instruct city departments to make air quality impacts a factor in all their operational decisions and ask them to generate a list of ideas for reducing emissions.

She plans to quickly connect with Rocky Mountain Power to coordinate a timeline for renegotiating its agreement on renewable energy, with the goal of expediting its net-100% renewable energy goal from 2030 to 2023.

And she wants to meet with partners in the private sector to begin working toward her vision that every ticket for events such as Jazz games, arts events and even General Conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serves also as a transit pass. She sees it as a way to encourage people to get out their cars and onto public transportation.

That might seem like a lot for a first day, Mendenhall acknowledged. But she argued during the campaign that her background in City Hall means that her learning curve won’t be as steep as that of past mayors.

“This is an opportunity that we’ve never quite had in the city before, and the relationships that I’ve built with the [City] Council will strengthen my ability as mayor to implement the vision that I think we share in many regards to improve our city,” the mayor-elect told The Salt Lake Tribune in a postelection interview.

Salt Lake City is ranked 23rd among U.S. cities for the highest number of health impacts from outdoor air pollution, according to a recent report published in the American Thoracic Society’s medical journal. Research also has shown there are more school absences across the Wasatch Front on poor air quality days, meaning the issue is affecting some students’ education.

Mendenhall has a background in air quality work and during the campaign promised that, if elected, the issue would be among her top priorities.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The state Capitol in Salt Lake City on a hazy day, Dec. 6, 2018.

Grace Olscamp, communications and outreach associate with HEAL Utah, an air quality advocacy group, said she was impressed by the diversity of approaches Mendenhall had proposed for addressing pollution.

“It’s such a big problem here in Salt Lake City that it really needs to be attacked from all angles,” she said.

With vehicles making up 42% of wintertime pollution, Olscamp said she was particularly interested in the idea of “getting buy-in from large companies or places like Eccles [Theater] or Vivint Arena.” That could help encourage transit ridership by removing cost and other barriers to accessibility, she said.

But while Olscamp said any air quality work is good work, she acknowledged that “we’ll need a lot more than just one area” working on the issue to make meaningful progress.

“We can make a large dent simply because of how many folks live here [in Salt Lake City], but we definitely need buy-in and the same amount of commitment from” other cities, towns and counties.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who along with a majority of her council colleagues endorsed Mendenhall in the election, said she was happy to hear that the new mayor plans to move forward on several issues related to air quality that the council has already begun exploring.

“What Erin’s doing is exactly what she said she was going to do — take those conversations we’ve been having in the council and implement them,” Fowler said.

Though many of Mendenhall’s first-day priorities are directly related to air quality, the mayor-elect said she plans to jump in on other urgent issues facing the city, including capacity concerns within three new homeless resource centers in the Salt Lake City area.

At the time she takes office, all three resource centers will have been up and running for a couple of months, and she said she wants to meet “with the state and county partners and City Council leadership to assess our homeless situation” and look at gaps in the system and “what path forward we can forge together.”

In her first few days, Mendenhall also plans to meet with the city’s legal counsel to discuss strategy for fighting the inland port, to order the creation of an opportunity zone prospectus for the west side and to begin the work of creating a tech ecosystem in the city by bringing together partners in the business and higher education communities.

The mayor-elect has wasted no time in getting her transition team up and going, announcing her plans in a City Hall news conference Thursday, the morning after her opponent, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, conceded the race.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) 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, Oct. 9, 2019.

Mendenhall said then that she wants the change in leadership to be seamless and inclusive. She also promised to retain as much institutional memory as possible and said she would not be requesting wholesale resignations from department and division heads, as current Mayor Jackie Biskupski did when she took office.

“The request of 111 people’s letters of resignation, some of the most skilled professionals we had in the administration, shook the morale of City Hall in a significant way,” Mendenhall told The Tribune. “And that is not something that I will be repeating.”

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said he’s been impressed by how the mayor-elect has begun her transition so far, adding that time well spent now could make a big difference come January.

“When a mayor comes into office, there are literally hundreds of people who feel they need to see the mayor right away,” he said. “And so to have a pretty good foundation when you start enables that person to be able to just do their job.”

As she moves from the council to the administration, Mendenhall said she has a number of ideas for how to facilitate better communication between the two bodies of government in the wake of an at-times tenuous four years between them under Biskupski’s leadership.

She plans to become a more regular presence at council work sessions and formal meetings than Biskupski has been, she said, and will look at ways to facilitate meetings — formal and informal — with council members who have often felt left in the dark.

“I will work with determination to continue supporting those relationships and making sure that we are as efficient and functional a city government as we can be,” Mendenhall pledged.

The new mayor also plans to ask all council members to hold a town hall meeting with her in their respective council districts.

Fowler said she supports those ideas for creating an “olive branch” to bridge the divide between the council and administration that she said has created frustration even among residents.

“I can guarantee there will be things we’ll disagree on,” she said of Mendenhall. “I can guarantee there will be times I say something snarky to her. I nearly guarantee that. But I also guarantee I trust I can come back and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk this out,’ and I think that’s what our community needs to see and the model our country needs to see right now.”

Mendenhall plans to submit her formal City Council resignation Jan. 1, after which the council will begin the process to appoint her replacement.

Crystal Young-Otterstrom, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance, has expressed interest in the position on social media. Ballpark Community Council Chairwoman Amy Hawkins is also rumored to be considering putting her name in for the seat.

Jason Stevenson, co-chairman of the East Liberty Park Community Organization and a spokesman for the ACLU of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune Monday that he plans to throw his name into the ring. So does Bill Davis, who ran against Mendenhall for the City Council seat in 2013 and who served previously as chair of the Ballpark and Liberty Wells Community Councils.

There are sure to be more.