Jessica Cobabe and Joshua Aguila couldn’t come from more different walks of life.
Cobabe, 35, is a sustainable fashion blogger with houses in both Springville and Salt Lake City’s east side. Aguila, 40, is a formerly homeless drug addict turned successful business owner who lives in Glendale.
But last week, both received a one-on-one meeting with Salt Lake City Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall at the Day-Riverside Branch Library in the city’s west side, at the last of four “office hours” sessions she hosted over the past few weeks in branch libraries ahead of her inauguration next month.
“I’m hearing from people that I haven’t had these kinds of conversations with before,” Mendenhall said of the open house concept. “This has been such a wonderful connection point with the community. I’ve met with people who I didn’t meet at community council meetings or that I haven’t seen at the usual venues.”
And Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune that she plans to continue the open house format in branch libraries after she takes office, in an effort to gain what she calls “invaluable” insight from the public.
That concept isn’t new. Outgoing Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski held quarterly office hours during her tenure called “five minutes with the mayor,” usually in two- to three-hour blocks.
But Mendenhall, who during the campaign pledged to bring city government into the neighborhoods, said she thinks the library format is more accessible for residents “in many ways, from perception to proximity, than City Hall.”
“We also held office hours on weekends and after business hours, starting at 5:00 at night, and I think that’s another way to increase accessibility,” she added.
Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, said Mendenhall’s open office hours serve as an early symbol of openness and are a “really clever way to help set the stage for a successful administration.”
The potential downsides of the format for a public official include the large amount of time and work that needs to be invested, as well as the challenge in balancing competing suggestions or recommendations from constituents with different interests, he said.
“But that’s endemic to the nature of politics in general,” said Cann, who’s also the mayor of North Logan City. “And I think usually even folks who don’t necessarily get what they hoped for after a conversation with an elected official, the fact that the elected official was willing to sit down, talk with them and hear them out goes a long way.”
While open house formats sometimes open politicians to direct criticism and expressions of frustration from their constituents, most of those who sought one-on-one time with Mendenhall recently wanted to help, not yell.
Cobabe, who’s halfway through a pregnancy and worries about the future her child will face, told the mayor-elect that she cares deeply about issues related to sustainability and the environment. She was inspired to meet Mendenhall after learning of her background in nonprofit air quality work and wanted to see how she could assist in generating community conversations about green practices.
“I feel like you have that same passion and you want to actually go out on the streets and do things differently,” Cobabe said. “And I want to help you any way I can.”
Aguila, too, came to offer Mendenhall his services.
He’s bilingual and knows what it’s like to be homeless and caught up in the criminal justice system — experiences he invited Mendenhall to learn more about and to work from. The Salt Lake City painter also offered to make himself available for apprenticeship training programs, to donate his extra supplies for community projects or to help with her initiative to plant 1,000 trees a year on the west side.
“I’m just trying to figure out where I can fit in or where my place [is] in the city or my involvement in helping homelessness, in helping volunteering,” he said.
Mendenhall invited each of the eight people she met that night to give their contact information to her new communications director and to stay in touch with her administration after she takes office next month.
The open office hours are one piece of a broader transition plan the mayor-elect began working on the day after her election opponent, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, conceded the race. Mendenhall plans to submit her resignation to the City Council on Jan. 1 (after which point the process for filling her District 5 City Council seat will begin), and she will take the oath of office Jan. 6.
Once she takes over, the incoming mayor has promised to pursue “immediate steps” to improve the capital’s poor air quality. She has also offered up several ideas to increase public engagement with city residents, including by asking all council members to hold a town hall meeting with her in their respective council districts.
The feedback and ideas she received at the open office hours, Mendenhall said, will inform the priorities and actions of her administration both immediately after she takes office and moving into the future.
“Over the last six years of being on the City Council, I learned the most from the community that I served,” she said. “Our citywide community will continue to inform me — not just where we are today but where we want to be going. And having those very honest conversations with people that we serve is, I think, the most genuine path to finding solutions that really work for us.”