During her first 100 days in office, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has had to grapple with a number of unexpected challenges, including a 5.7 earthquake that shook the capital city and a global pandemic that’s forced many business to close and put thousands out of work.
“This is certainly more than I would have wagered we’d be experiencing in the first 100 days,” Mendenhall said in a phone interview with The Tribune on Tuesday. But, she added, “in the six years that I’ve been in City Hall, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t predict what’s coming around the corner.”
The administration’s response to the crises, which has included seven emergency proclamations since Mendenhall took office, has delayed action on a few items, the new mayor acknowledged.
But despite the chaos, Mendenhall said she’s also made progress in her first months in office on a number of the promises she made on the campaign trail — particularly around equity, sustainability and efforts to create a “tech ecosystem” in the state’s capital.
With a background in air quality work, Mendenhall had pledged to take immediate steps on Day One of her administration to clear the capital city’s dirty air. Since then, the former city councilwoman said she has secured funding to plant 1,000 additional trees in west side neighborhoods this year as part of an effort to improve air quality, promote walkability and improve equity on the sometimes-neglected west side.
The mayor also secured a pilot program for her “Tickets for Transit” concept, which envisions that every ticket for a major event — from Jazz games to concerts to religious gatherings — would double as a transit pass, though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ spring General Conference was ultimately held virtually because of the coronavirus.
“I think the Tickets for Transit getting wheels under it as quickly as it did was a major win for public transit across the board,” she told The Tribune, adding that she is “hopeful that that commitment between UTA and the church is still on the table.”
On sustainability, Mendenhall also points to progress on the Utah Inland Port, a massive controversial import and export trading hub that’s planned for a large chunk of the city’s northwest side.
During this year’s legislative session, she worked with state leaders to tweak several provisions the city has found objectionable. That bill, which passed through both chambers, gave the city back some of the land use power and taxing authority that was taken from it by the state’s takeover of the inland port land through legislation in 2018.
While those changes earned the praise of city leaders, they also sparked ire among environmental activists who would rather not see the port built at all.
Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said in a statement on Tuesday that Mendenhall has faced what has had to have been “the longest 100 days — and a daunting challenge — for any new administration.”
“I’m proud of how our mayor, along with the council and all city employees, has taken the challenge of a pandemic and an earthquake head on to keep us steady and moving forward,” he said. “What has impressed me most is the Mayor’s approach, tone, and creativity during one of the most complicated emergencies in our City’s history. Her collaborative approach is something the Council highly values and it shines through in accomplishments like the opening of the Sugar House temporary shelter and the acquisition of Allen Park.”
Wharton said he looks forward to continued collaboration in the months to come.
In an interview, Mendenhall pointed to efforts to open a temporary emergency shelter in the Sugar House neighborhood amid frigid temperatures and bed constraints in the Salt Lake City area’s homeless resource system as one of the accomplishments she’s most proud of.
“That was a big effort,” she said, and the announcement came just days after she took office. That facility was scheduled to close Wednesday, despite concerns that some of the temporary residents will end up back on the street.
The new mayor said she was also pleased to have secured funding for an equity plan and gentrification mitigation plan, both of which she said will help the city move forward in the right direction once the dust from the coronavirus pandemic has begun to settle.
“With the crisis that we’re in, it’s going to allow us to come back to work and come back to the way we operate in a new way,” she said. “I don’t think we can yet predict what all of those opportunities will look like, but when we get to the point where we’re able to start recovering, I want us to recover with more strategic intention toward equity and inclusion and expanded opportunities for all.”
Mendenhall said she believes her next 100 days will bring as many challenges as her first did and anticipates that the city will still be grappling with the effects and outcomes of the coronavirus at that point. In the coming weeks, she said the city government will continue responding to the needs of residents and businesses who have been hit hard economically by COVID-19. That will mean looking at housing, food access and health care access and systemic inequities, she said.
But even in the face of many challenges, the mayor said she maintains a positive outlook.
“We’re not through the woods yet and many of the impacts are yet to come,” Mendenhall said, “but I’m really optimistic."