Officers ordered protesters upset over a fatal police shooting to get out of the street and on the sidewalk. They refused. And this August 2020 standoff ended in violence. Punches thrown. People body-slammed.
This wasn’t in Salt Lake City, where previous protests included sporadic violence. This was in Cottonwood Heights, an affluent area nestled near the foothills of the canyons that give it its name.
A year later, this melee hangs over the race for mayor.
Five candidates are running for the part-time post. Two want Police Chief Robby Russo fired, in part because of the department’s aggressive tactics. Three back him.
The supporters include candidate Mike Weichers, who works at Zions Bank and is a newcomer to politics. Russo has endorsed him, and Weichers said his motivation to run stems from the police protests last August.
“I didn’t think that was representative of our city,” Weichers said.
He said the people who marched during that Aug. 2 protest and a subsequent Black Lives Matter rally a few weeks later were largely not city residents and he blamed outgoing City Council member Tali Bruce for helping to instigate the protests. She attended them, but the protest that ended in bloody noses and arrests was organized by a group called Dance Dance for Revolution.
Bruce and Russo have long clashed, including in the courts. She is not running for reelection. And it’s possible that Russo’s job could be impacted by who wins the mayor’s race in November.
Candidates Ed Schwartz and Eric Kraan both say Cottonwood Heights needs a new police chief. Russo has held the job since 2008, when Cottonwood Heights created its own department.
“We have a police department that is good but the leadership is questionable,” said Schwartz, a substance use counselor. “There’s been no accountability in Cottonwood Heights for what happened. … Russo should be let go.”
Kraan, who owns a specialty store for speed skates, also takes issue with the police chief endorsing a candidate for mayor.
“It would serve the community of Cottonwood Heights better,” he said, “to find new leadership in that position.”
A review from Utah’s attorney general’s office said Cottonwood Heights police acted appropriately.
Beyond Weichers, Russo has the support of mayoral candidates Maile Evans and Timothy Hallbeck. Both say they know the chief personally and believe in his leadership.
“I’m a big Robby fan,” said Hallbeck, a retired software engineer.
The candidates are also split on police spending. Schwartz believes Cottonwood Heights could reduce police spending by 20% “without threatening safety and security.”
Evans, a graphic designer, and Weichers want to pay officers more.
“It’s a little ridiculous that our police officers risk their lives every day and they make one dollar more than what we’re paying school bus drivers,” said Evans, focusing on the entry-level salary for officers.
Russo did not return a request for comment.
An open seat
The mayoral race is an open seat, with Mayor Mike Peterson deciding not to run again after one term. The mayor leads a five-person City Council. A city manager handles Cottonwood Heights’ day-to-day functions.
Like a number of Salt Lake County cities, Cottonwood Heights opted to hold its election using ranked-choice balloting. Voters can rank all of the candidates. The person with the least votes would be eliminated and those ballots would then go to voters’ second choice, and so on, until one candidate gets a majority.
This election system meant there was no primary. Not every candidate likes ranked-choice voting. Evans isn’t a fan, saying voters are confused. And she voted for only one candidate. Others are generally supportive. Kraan said ranked choice, with the chance of being a voter’s second or third option, has helped keep the race focused on the issues.
One topic voters bring up frequently are efforts to get people up Little Cottonwood Canyon efficiently. The Utah Department of Transportation is considering a gondola to the ski resorts or enhanced bus service as ways to ease the snarled traffic.
All five mayoral candidates oppose the gondola.
Weichers wants to see the state consider tolling the canyon, while exempting Cottonwood Heights residents since the canyons are in their backyard.
Evans wants to see smaller shuttles like the ones at Zion National Park, saying they would be “more viable than the buses that are huge and long and scary.”
Kraan wants the masses to easily get from the airport to the ski slopes without a car, so he’s a fan of buses.
“We need to start rethinking mobility around the valley,” he said.
Areas of focus
All the candidates have other issues at the top of mind. Here’s a quick rundown of what they would work on if elected.
Evans • She wants to limit the size of the development at Hillside Village Plaza to no more than three stories with shops on the main level.
Hallbeck • His goal is to “stop spending money.” He’d review proposals such as one to put solar panels on City Hall and defer as many as possible.
Kraan • He’s an advocate for policies to make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, and suggests there should be steps taken to lower the “operating speed” of cars.
Schwartz • He’s focused on the budget and potential reductions on spending, including a review of how often police get new vehicles.
Weichers • He says the city needs to develop a more aggressive plan to repair and replace an aging stormwater system.