Salt Lake County mayor’s race looks to be a showdown over grappling with growth

(Tribune file photos) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny WIlson, left, and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs

November’s election for Salt Lake County mayor will pit incumbent Mayor Jenny Wilson, who’s seeking her first full term in office, against Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, a vocal proponent for the southwestern portion of the valley and sharp critic of recent county actions affecting that area.

Both Staggs, a Republican, and Wilson, a Democrat, officially filed their paperwork for the race last week, as did Michael Cundick, an environmentalist and inland port opponent running on the Green Party ticket.

As the county’s population swells, the race is likely to be dominated by issues of growth, including housing density and transportation. But early politicking suggests, Wilson’s opponents will also position it as a referendum on the new mayor’s first year and a half in office.

During her annual state of the county address this year, Wilson touted her accomplishments since filling the seat vacated by now-Congressman Ben McAdams in January 2019, including garnering increased funding in her first budget for public safety and domestic violence and her involvement in an “unprecedented” collaborative effort to address homelessness across the county.

But she’s also had to make a number of “tough choices,” she acknowledged — such as the proposal of an unpopular property tax increase the council approved at the end of last year.

Staggs, who served as a Riverton council member for four years before his election as mayor in 2017, indicated when he launched his campaign to lead the county earlier this month that he would make the tax hike an issue in the campaign.

Olympia Hills

The primary concern that drove Staggs into the race was the council’s approval earlier this year of Olympia Hills, the 931-acre residential and commercial project west of Herriman that leaders in the southwest valley strongly oppose, concerned it would increase traffic congestion and pose other threats to the quality of life.

“I’ve just got the sense from so many throughout the county that elected officials are just not listening to them,” Staggs, 45, said in a phone interview. “And that’s the overall theme of the campaign.”

Wilson declined an interview about her campaign with The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, citing the coronavirus outbreak and her involvement in addressing its impacts.

“November’s election is the last thing on Mayor Wilson’s mind right now,” her campaign manager, Patrick Costigan, said in a statement. “The mayor’s focus is right where it should be: responding to the public health and safety crises facing the county.”

But in other interviews, Wilson has praised the second vetting of Olympia Hills that eventually came before the County Council with new design standards. She has also defended the campaign contributions Staggs and others have made an issue of from the project’s developer to her unsuccessful 2017-2018 U.S. Senate race against Republican Mitt Romney.

“The reality is, if you’ve run for office several times as I have, money is a part of it,” Wilson told The Salt Lake Tribune after those donations came to light.

This race isn’t the first time Wilson and Staggs have gone toe to toe. Facing criticisms from leaders and residents in the southwest portion of the county late last year, Wilson argued that officials in Riverton and Herriman had not adequately planned for their growth — putting county officials “in the hot seat” with the Olympia Hills project.

Staggs fired back, saying those remarks mischaracterized his city’s planning efforts, which he described as “conscientious, proactive and thoughtful."

“To assert otherwise,” he said at the time, “just illustrates how really out of touch some of these county elected officials are and that they’ve never really even been out to the southwest area.”

Staggs, a strategic development adviser for Vivakor, an oil field extraction and remediation technology company, told The Tribune on Monday that his main priorities in the race will be smart and sustainable growth, empowering communities and fiscal responsibility.

If elected as mayor, he said he would also fight for more decision-making at the local level and increased collaboration with city leaders.

“I see several instances where the county really should be working in much more of a partnership fashion with cities,” especially as the county serves fewer and fewer unincorporated residents, he said.

Both Wilson and Staggs also face a challenge from Cundick, the Green Party candidate who has said his campaign will focus on clean air and clean water, affordable housing shortages, massive population growth and community engagement.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Michael Cundick, co-founder of Salt Lake City Air Protectors, Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity, Heather Dove, president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon and Dorothy Pappas, chairman of the Westpointe Community Council discuss the location of the proposed inland port, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Last year, Utah lawmakers took control of a massive portion of land in Salt Lake CityÕs northwest area in an effort to create a distribution hub on the cityÕs northwest side, sparking outrage among residents.

Cundick, a vocal opponent of the inland port — a massive distribution hub development planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest area — also plans to make that project an issue in the race. He has criticized Wilson for being a “career politician” who he believes won’t stand as strong as he would against the development, which he wants to see completely repealed.

“I think our county mayor has been doing a reasonably good job with running the day to day for the county, but I do want to remind people that the role of mayor is to be a spokesperson for a place, to represent the values of a place,” Cundick said in an interview Monday. “And I believe that the world really needs younger, more progressive voices in places of leadership to properly address the environmental and cultural crises that we’re in.

Council contests

Also up for grabs this election cycle are four of nine Salt Lake County Council seats and the positions of county assessor, recorder, surveyor and treasurer.

Four candidates have stepped up to fill the District 2 seat to be vacated by embattled County Councilman Michael Jensen, who chose not to run for reelection. Jensen, the former chief of the Unified Fire Authority, faced allegations of nepotism and misuse of public funds there but was ultimately not charged.

The candidates running to replace him include Fred Cox, a former House member and leader of the recent tax reform repeal referendum, former South Jordan Mayor Dave Alford and West Valley City Councilwoman Karen Lang, all running as Republicans. Deborah Gatrell, a Democrat, has also filed to represent the southwestern portion of the county.

The other three incumbents in seats on the ballot this year are all running for reelection, with second-year Councilwoman Ann Granato assured another term in office after no challenger filed to run against her.

Council chairman Max Burdick, who represents the southeastern section of the county, faces a challenge from fellow Republican Dea Theodore and from two Democrats: Terri Hrechkosy and Aaron Dekeyzer.

And Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, who is running for her first full term as at-large representative after being appointed to the seat vacated by now-Mayor Wilson in early 2019, will run against Republican Laurie Stringham.

Salt Lake County Assessor Kevin Jacobs, who was appointed to the seat in 2013, has chosen not to run for reelection. Two employees in that office will run to replace him: Chief Deputy Assessor Chris Stavros, a Republican, and Jennifer Fresques, a Democrat.

Salt Lake County Recorder Rashelle Hobbs will run for a second term against Republican Erin Preston, while incumbent Treasurer Wayne Cushing, who was elected in 2010, faces a challenge from Democrat Michael McDonald.