Budget battle erupts as GOP-led Salt Lake County Council trims Democratic mayor’s staff

Council member David Alvord says Jenny Wilson wouldn’t answer questions, accuses her of having too many advisers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. She is in a budget dispute with the GOP-led County Council.

The Salt Lake County Council voted along party lines this week to cut the mayor’s budget by $180,000 and remove two open positions from her staff.

Council member David Alvord, a Republican, pushed for the budget cut, arguing Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, had more employees than necessary and he questioned whether some of her staffers were working full time. He also said the mayor would not answer all of his questions and blocked him from directly interviewing five of her employees.

“As I look at the list of the mayor’s staff, I see one, two, three, four senior advisers to the mayor,” Alvord said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “I don’t know what the right number is, but it’s quite a few.”

Wilson defended her staffers, arguing they have worked long hours, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also defended her management, saying she has not expanded her staff or sought a budget increase since taking over from then-Mayor Ben McAdams in January 2019.

She refused to subject her employees to a direct interview about their job performance from one council member. As mayor, Wilson said it is her job to manage her employees, though she did provide Alvord with job descriptions and met with him directly a week ago to talk about her staff.

She said more than once that she thought the cut was “political” and noted that Alvord was not asking the same questions of other county offices.

“If you don’t believe as a council — five of you — that I’m doing a good enough job,” she said, “then cut my budget.”

The council did just that, and six of them, all Republicans, voted to do so. The three Democrats on the council opposed the reduction. This was a preliminary vote, with the full budget expected to be approved in mid-December. Neither Wilson nor Alvord expects this decision to change.

The mayor’s voice broke with emotion after the vote, and she expressed concern that this move might lead to more contention between the council and her office.

“I’m quite shaken on behalf of my staff by the lack of trust from one body to another,” she said. “And I fear what’s coming. … It’s a sad day for me.”

Council Chair Steve DeBry said the mayor’s comments were fair, and he said he didn’t distrust her or her staff, though he did vote to cut her budget.

“The way I came down on this is I’m not impugning your integrity, or your honor, or your honesty,” he said.

“I believe that your vote did, “Wilson responded, “but I hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”

Why Alvord wanted the budget cut

Alvord, the former mayor of South Jordan, is one of three new members of the council, joining after the 2020 election, which bolstered the Republican majority, upping it to 6 to 3. These new members, including Dea Theadore and Laurie Stringham, have promised to take a more aggressive posture when it comes to the budget.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Council member David Alvord, pictured in Butterfield Canyon near Herriman, is in a budget dispute with Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Generally, the council and the mayor’s office have worked together in recent weeks to, for instance, provide more money for employees in the sheriff’s office. But Tuesday’s work session, which came near the end of this budget process, became combative. This tension had been building for a few weeks.

Alvord told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was concerned about one employee in particular, whom he did not name, but to not single out that person, he reviewed the mayor’s 17 direct staffers and sought information on five. Those five include an office administrator, a communications adviser, two senior advisers and an associate deputy mayor.

He asked the mayor to have the employees write a report about the hours they worked, the projects they completed and “what would happen to Salt Lake County if we lost you.” He also sought to talk to them directly.

“She kind of told me from the outset that she has a statutory right to staff and that I shouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions,” Alvord said. “So there was definitely a pushback.”

Alvord said he has sought budget information from other offices and that Wilson was “uniquely uncooperative.”

He suspects the employees he sought information on “are legitimate” and added “but when someone doesn’t answer your questions, it can sometimes lead to a red flag.”

In response, Alvord and the Republican council members are poised to eliminate two open positions in the mayor’s office and remove the combined $180,000 that those two former employees were paid. One of those employees left six months ago; the other in just the past month.

He said the mayor can shift responsibilities to the remaining employees or she can come back at another time, propose a new position and justify it before the council.

Alvord said his budget cut wasn’t political.

“I’m not up for reelection for three years, and the mayor is not up for reelection for three years,” he said. “I really don’t know what political win I would get out of this if I tried.”

And he does not think this tension will necessarily lead to conflicts down the road.

“I don’t see this as some kind of opening foray into a massive war,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate that maybe she’s reading too much into it.”

The mayor’s response

Having a night to reflect, Wilson doesn’t think she is reading too much into it.

“This is really an attack on my team,” she told The Tribune on Wednesday. “I remain very surprised at the level of hostility that came from [the council] yesterday.”

Wilson was a council member before she became mayor. She said she has never witnessed “such a breakdown in trust.”

She said her staffers are working hard and doing a good job. She said Alvord’s accusations to the contrary are “absolutely a false narrative.”

“I believe this cut was arbitrary. I believe it’s political,” she said. “And ultimately, it’s the public that will suffer.”

The cut means she can’t fill an opening for someone who worked on social media and constituent affairs. She will have to reconfigure the responsibility of those who work for her.

But she said she would rather do that than let Alvord take responsibilities she said should stay with the mayor.

“It’s my job to manage my team,” she said. “He had given me a multistep plan to manage my team. That’s inappropriate.”

The council is expected to review the district attorney’s budget Dec. 7 and then vote on the full $1.5 billion budget Dec. 14.