‘I’d be good in an alley fight’ — How Erin Mendenhall has marshaled SLC through disasters and political wars

Guiding with her gut, she has taken on state leaders, smoothed ties with the City Council, boosted businesses, tackled police reform, addressed homelessness and worked to clean up the air, but more needs to be done.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives her State of the City address at City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

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Erin Mendenhall has arguably had one of the hardest first terms of any Salt Lake City mayor in recent memory, and she’s only halfway through it.

The coronavirus pandemic hit Utah months after she took office, flooding hospitals, shutting down city buildings and driving commuters away from public transit. Then came a 5.7 magnitude earthquake and, later, a hurricane-force windstorm. Both events resulted in severe property damage throughout the city. The summer of 2020 saw nightly protests that sometimes turned violent. The summer of 2021 saw crippling drought. The liberal mayor has also publicly clashed with conservative state and county officials as the city continues to struggle with wave after wave of COVID-19 infections, two years after the first case emerged.

“You know, I always joke that I’d be good in an alley fight if you want me in a pinch,” Mendenhall said, adding that losing her father as a child taught her about the harsh realities of the world at a young age.

But natural, political and public health disasters aside, Mendenhall has plugged away with the ambitious agenda she presented during her campaign. She’s planting a new urban forest on the west side. She’s drumming up creative solutions for the city’s notoriously polluted air. She has opened new trails and improved roads.

“I feel strangely comfortable in this unpredictable environment that really became inflamed in 2020 and has persisted ever since,” the mayor said, “even though none of us could have predicted everything that we’ve been tested [with] as a city.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson praised Mendenhall for her fortitude over the past two years after the two often found themselves working side by side to respond to multiple challenges.

“It’s been a hard time to be governing, with all the political division, COVID, unrest, concerns over equity and inclusion, police issues,” Wilson said. “She’s incredibly tough.”

[Read a midterm report card for Mayor Erin Mendenhall here.]

Aligning with the City Council

Mendenhall took office in January 2020 with one big advantage: an intimate understanding of how city government works. She’s the only sitting City Council member to be elected mayor since Jake Garn won in 1971.

One of Mendenhall’s most visible achievements is her administration’s improved relationship with council members.

“Having been on the council for six years, I was often wanting the mayors of the past two administrations to be more present, to be interested in the council’s deliberations,” said Mendenhall, who was first elected in 2013 to serve District 5 neighborhoods like Ballpark and Central Ninth.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Mendenhall embraces Salt Lake City Council member Amy Fowler before being sworn in as mayor at Salt Lake City Hall on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

Mendenhall or a member of her staff have been present at every City Council meeting, even during intense public comment periods about policing that stretched long into the night. It’s an about-face from Mendenhall’s immediate predecessor, Jackie Biskupski, who frequently and publicly butted heads with council members over the inland port, causing members to vent their frustrations, split from the administration and forge their own deals.

City Council chair Dan Dugan praised Mendenhall for her efforts to heal past tensions.

“We work well together, we communicate well — not only the mayor and council members, but the mayor’s staff and our staff,” Dugan said. “We are also aligned on a number of things.”

The mayor and council have scrutinized the city’s police budget together and developed potential solutions to systemic racism. They formed a Commission on Racial Equity in Policing a month after George Floyd was murdered while in custody of Minneapolis officers. They teamed up to expand internet access in west-side neighborhoods as school kids were forced to learn from home.

“It takes two of us to do this,” Dugan said. “The mayor can’t do it alone, and the council can’t do it alone.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, center, poses for a photograph with council members James Rogers, Andrew Johnston, Chris Wharton, Ana Valdemoros, Daniel Dugan and Amy Fowler, from left, after inauguration ceremonies at Salt Lake City Hall on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

The mayor also had the council’s backing late last fall, when she issued a school mask mandate, even as state lawmakers vowed to retaliate.

“I really applaud her,” Dugan said. “I look forward to the upcoming year.”

Helping businesses through the pandemic

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of the nonprofit Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, said she hasn’t engaged much with the mayor’s office directly but saluted Mendenhall’s economic development team.

“They are really working hard,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, “to help minority business rebound” from the pandemic.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall grabs a soda at the pop-up Thirst Soda Shop after a news conference announcing the long-term vision for the Ballpark area on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021.

She added that previous administrations communicated better with diverse groups like hers but acknowledged the pandemic had created extra challenges.

“This is a hard time right now for everybody, especially her,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “Everyone’s doing the best they can with what they’re working with.”

Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, welcomed the mayor’s actions in helping businesses during the tumultuous first two years of the pandemic and her term.

“What I hear the most — and I certainly feel this way myself — is we have a mayor who is engaged, who has a listening ear,” Miller said. “She won’t just hear you out, she���ll reach out.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks at a news conference in September 2021.

One of the mayor’s campaign pledges was to attract more technology and innovation businesses to Utah’s capital. In 2021, she launched an innovation team to streamline city services and build out more equitable access to digital resources. Miller commended the mayor’s economic efforts.

“The focus she continues to have on that, you see the fruits (all) around us,” he said. “New buildings are going up, from high-rises to apartments to new businesses, large and small. That’s the good news — Salt Lake City is growing.”

Homelessness and public safety

Some of the mayor’s constituents and former supporters, however, shared frustrations with the past two years, particularly with how her administration has addressed public safety and homelessness.

“Really scary stuff is falling through the cracks,” said Amy Hawkins, chair of the Ballpark Community Council in Mendenhall’s former City Council district.

Hawkins pointed to a recent string of violent crimes in her neighborhood and a police department that is struggling with low morale and high turnover. Many of her neighbors who are former community volunteers have sold their homes and moved away.

“They just don’t feel it’s appropriate for families anymore,” Hawkins said.

Mendenhall and Police Chief Mike Brown recently announced plans to improve public safety, including funds to hire 10 additional officers, and they issued pay raises over the summer. But Hawkins noted that unfair zoning in the city is causing a concentration of encampments in certain neighborhoods, attracting criminals who prey on the unsheltered.

The city’s current zoning allows homeless resource centers and shelters only in certain districts, which are heavily concentrated in downtown and west-side areas.

(Source: Salt Lake City)

Mendenhall issued a proposal last fall to place a temporary hold on new resource centers so the city can update its policies and standards for the facilities, giving the council more control over their locations and community impact.

But last month, the city’s planning commission rejected the mayor’s plan.

“Initiating zoning changes was a big step,” Hawkins said. “I was shocked the planning commission didn’t follow her lead.”

Meanwhile, Hawkins said, a 40-tent encampment sits in her neighborhood unabated, even as the city opened overflow shelters this winter.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown present a revised crime control plan to media at the Public Safety Building, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

David Ibarra — a businessman who ran against Mendenhall for mayor, then dropped out and endorsed her — called the mayor’s homelessness response a “disaster.”

“Do something. Do it now, because the problem is getting worse,” Ibarra said. “Downtown is not safe for a family anymore.”

Mendenhall noted that Salt Lake City mayors have grappled with homelessness and the humanitarian crisis it presents for a century or more. But she acknowledged residents’ frustrations.

“It seems impossible to some who have watched dozens of administrations work on this,” the mayor said. “But the difference I think that you see in my administration is [the approach] is multifaceted.”

She noted the state is getting on board in addressing the issue, with Gov. Spencer Cox calling for $228 million for affordable and deeply affordable housing. Last year, the Legislature also created its first homelessness coordinator position.

“They are beginning to step up,” the mayor said. “... We’re seeing the potential for them to pull their weight.”

Mendenhall herself recruited former City Council member Andrew Johnston to lead her new homelessness policy and outreach effort. Under her watch, the city launched a “kayak court” to help clear legal records that often become barriers to securing housing. And the city is in the process of creating its first tiny-home village to provide stable homes for about 430 people.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Britny McCurdy who is homeless and living along the edge of the Jordan River accepts legal help through a program called “kayak court,” providing legal defense and advice from the water for those hard to reach on Friday, July 16, 2021.

“We’re getting very creative, and we’re going to keep bringing creative approaches to how ... we help,” Mendenhall said. “Our overall strategy is to get people the help they need and have Salt Lake City be a safe place for everyone, and that includes the unsheltered.”

Still, Ibarra said he regrets endorsing the mayor, partly due to public safety issues in the city. He penned an op-ed in September calling on her to replace the police chief. And, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he noted that the police department’s budget is at an all-time high, yet the time it takes officers to respond to calls continues to lag.

“I want this mayor to adjust. I want this chief of police to adjust,” Ibarra said. “I want them to be successful, because we can’t afford to go two more years like this.”

Ibarra further worried that the mayor’s clashes with state officials are going to cost the city its two seats on the Utah Inland Port Authority board.

“I’m hoping she’ll do some adjustment in her leadership,” he said, “[and] end up repairing our very, very damaged relationship with the state.”

Air quality and the inland port

Mendenhall jumped into politics largely due to her concerns over the Salt Lake Valley’s air pollution. And while air quality is a large, complex issue involving state and federal regulations, along with daily human habits, the mayor has crafted a number of innovative ideas to address the issue.

She has planted 1,000 trees every year on the city’s west side to both remove thousands of pounds of pollutants and help cool neighborhoods as climate change makes summers hotter. She has encouraged ridership on public transit through her Tickets for Transit program, the affordable UTA On Demand connection service and the newly announced “Free Fare February,” the same month when inversion pollution is often at its worst.

Even so, the inland port looms on the horizon of air quality discussions. And port opponents fear the influx of trains, trucks and warehouses could derail much of the mayor’s progress.

“I am always concerned about the potential impact of the inland port,” Mendenhall said. “I’m also a realist that the path we are on as American consumers, and with the the growth we’re experiencing in this state, is not a good one for air quality or our roads or quality of life.”

But with Salt Lake City at the crossroads of cargo moving around the West, the inland port could represent an opportunity to “improve the way things move” in a more environmentally responsible way, the mayor said. A priority often touted by port backers is adding more rail capacity, which will help remove emissions-spewing diesel trucks from Utah roads.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall watches a news conference announcing a new ride-sharing service in conjunction with Salt Lake City and the Utah Transit Authority for the city’s west side, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.

“I desperately want surety,” Mendenhall said, “that the way the port develops will be the way they talk about it: as the greenest port in the world.”

The city is locked in a lawsuit with the state over what it asserts is an unconstitutional land and tax grab that snapped up nearly a fifth of its land area to create the port. The case currently sits before the Utah Supreme Court.

The port authority, meanwhile, secured millions in bonds to begin building projects. Mendenhall and the City Council issued a letter in September asking for more transparency about the funds, including how they’ll be repaid, given that the port’s tax revenue remains in legal limbo.

Deeda Seed of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition said she appreciates the mayor’s scrutiny of the port, along with Mendenhall’s continued backing of the city’s legal battles, which began with the Biskupski administration.

“We’re really grateful she chose to do that,” Seed said. “Obviously, their attention has been focused on dealing with a catastrophic pandemic and all the things associated with that, so this issue isn’t as prominent [than] when we were doing things ... before 2020.”

(Mayor Erin Mendenhall via Twitter) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, right, helps plant the 1,000th tree on the west side on Nov. 15, 2021.

Both Seed and the mayor said they worried about rumblings at the Legislature over removing Salt Lake City’s two seats on the port authority board.

“All of their revenue is our taxpayer dollars,” Mendenhall said. “And I can’t imagine what bonding authority is comfortable with a revenue stream that’s being litigated.”

The mayor added that the city will “fight” to keep its representation.

“The inland port legislation is a can of worms every single year,” she said. “Once they open it, we don’t know what can happen.

Lessons learned and looking ahead

With half her first term still ahead, the mayor has plenty of big initiatives left she plans to pursue.

The city is investing another $6.5 million in affordable housing, which should build 735 units over the next five years. And Mendenhall and the council have $85 million to spend in American Rescue Plan dollars, a big chunk of which the mayor intends to direct toward early childhood education and support for single mothers.

In her recent State of the City speech, the mayor also announced a new cooperative with Rocky Mountain Power that will deliver 100% renewable energy to every Salt Lake City resident by 2030.

And, of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to be the defining issue of the mayor’s tenure. The wave brought by the omicron variant has not yet crested, plenty of unknowns lie ahead and state lawmakers continue to throw roadblocks at her response efforts.

“They have been removing authorities and abilities of mayors,” Mendenhall said, “who are always working on the front line of community issues, and that’s unfortunately predictable for our Legislature.

But the mayor said she isn’t out of options.

“What I do know is that our team in Salt Lake City is constantly looking for ways that we can protect our residents better,” Mendenhall said. “What we will discover tomorrow or next month or later this year, we shall see. But we’re going to keep trying.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives remarks on her proposal about new federal stimulus spending for the city at a news conference at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021.

Amid the uncertainties brought by public health emergencies, social unrest and legislative meddling, Mendenhall said her greatest lesson over the past two years was learning to navigate those challenges with her gut.

“[With] all of the technical, logical and complicated decisions ... I’ve had to make,” she said, “including my heart in all of those has proven to be a very valuable thing.”

As one of three female mayors in the city’s history, and one of only a few high-profile female leaders in the state, Mendenhall said that she has come to see vulnerability as a strength, even during crises.

“Our country and our community needs leaders to be authentic enough to say, ‘I’m learning. And I want to know what it’s like for you,’” Mendenhall said. “That may change the way I see things tomorrow. ... We are in a difficult spot as a country, and we should be curious about what we need to rethink.”