Salt Lake City Council appoints architect with city planning background to seat left vacant by Mayor Erin Mendenhall

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darin Masao Mano is sworn in as a member of the the Salt Lake City Council, after being selected from 24 candidates. Mano will takes the position vacated by Mayor Erin Mendenhall. Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

After interviewing 24 candidates for the position in an open meeting, the Salt Lake City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint Darin Mano, a small business owner and architect, to fill the District 5 seat vacated earlier this month by newly sworn-in Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Mano, 35, lives in Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood and positioned himself as the candidate with the planning and land use background necessary to consider the needs of all residents affected by zoning, redevelopment and transit decisions and to help establish the capital city of the future.

“Salt Lake City is already an amazing place, but it can be even better — and I want to help build that,” he told the council Tuesday, outlining a vision of a booming 900 West corridor and a Fairpark neighborhood bustling with local arts, culture and entertainment.

“This is the Salt Lake City that we can build together,” Mano continued. “The decisions we make today will determine whether that happens in five years, 50 years or never. I understand urban design, I know how cities function, and I am ready and willing to serve.”

Mano, an alumnus of the University of Utah and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, is the principal and founder of the architecture firm Raw Design Studio. During the past few years, he has served at various times on the city’s Redevelopment Advisory Committee, Planning Commission and Ballpark Community Council Board.

Those experiences, along with his Japanese American identity, were part of what drew Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros to pick Mano out of the crowd.

“I think his background is going to help him hit the ground running,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune after the meeting. “I think that’s very important because of the time period we have with him and this vacancy. That and also because of his diverse background. I’m not sure if we’ve had another Japanese American [run for City Council] before and diversity is very important to me; that’s one of the things I was looking for.”

During his initial remarks, Mano told the council of how his grandparents had fled from California to escape the Japanese internment camps in the 1940s. They ended up in Utah, he said, where they found a “warm, welcoming and safe community.”

The opportunity to help new Americans in Salt Lake City and to represent a community that hasn’t always had a seat at the table were part of what drew him to put his name in for the council seat, he said.

“I think it’s really important to have voices from as many parts of the community as we can,” said Mano, who speaks Japanese and is also a member of the LGBTQ community.

Mano will serve on the council for the rest of Mendenhall’s term, which ends in January 2022, but told The Salt Lake Tribune he hadn’t decided yet whether he would run for the seat in 2021.

The opportunity to fill a vacancy in Salt Lake City doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, it can open the door for candidates who might not have the time or resources to run a traditional campaign, helping them build name recognition for when they do campaign.

This was only the second time in at least two decades that the council has had to make an appointment to fill a vacancy. Valdemoros, who was elected to the City Council in November, was appointed last year to fill the seat vacated by state Sen. Derek Kitchen through a similar process.

During its work session meeting, the council heard from each of the 24 candidates for five minutes on topics of his or her choice, such as pertinent professional experiences and possible solutions to the challenges the city faces. Mano’s application focused on crime and redevelopment as the major issues facing District 5, with solutions ranging from street lighting improvements to continued investment in services for people experiencing homelessness or addiction. (Of the original 28 candidates who applied, two withdrew from the race and two didn’t attend the work session.)

After multiple rounds of voting — and one point during which three candidates were tied with two votes each — a majority of council members threw their support behind Mano.

It was a hard decision for many of the council members and a process Council Chairman Chris Wharton said early on was his “least favorite part of being a City Council member." That’s because “the six people who don’t live in District 5 will be making the determination for who will represent the people of District 5,” which includes the Ballpark, Central City, Central 9th, East Liberty Park, Liberty Wells and Wasatch Hollow communities.

Valdemoros, who was on the other side of the aisle the last time the council filled a vacancy, agreed that it wasn’t easy, since there were “many good candidates.”

“But I’m proud of the choice we all made ultimately,” she said.

In an interview after the meeting, Mendenhall praised the number of District 5 residents who “showed up,” with their “talent and passion and vision for the city." But she called Mano a “fantastic choice.”

“I’ve worked with him on the Ballpark Community Council for a number of years with projects he’s worked on through the city and I know of his caliber and his intentions to bring equity and vision for progress to the city,” she said. “It’s a great replacement.”

Mano said Tuesday evening that he was still “in shock” but was looking forward to getting started.

“I hope I can hit the ground running,” he said.