Sexual orientation and boxes of chocolate have confounded Salt Lake City government.

The City Council labored through the late 1990s over laws regarding the two topics; in the spring of 2000 newly elected Mayor Rocky Anderson sought to put them to rest by signing executive orders — edicts written in his no-sugar-coating style.

But those orders stirred up new questions over which branch of city government has the last word, and embedded three small thorns in City Hall's side. Now, eight months later, the mayor and council say they're finally close to ironing them out via a meeting this Tuesday.

The first Anderson order is the least contentious: it calls for recruitment of a diverse work force. But the second prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the third bans all gifts of any value. The trio came out of the mayor's office in April 2000.

Alarmed, some members of the City Council asked City Attorney Roger Cutler to determine whether the new mayor had acted outside his jurisdiction. The council, after all, had already adopted its own ordinances on gifts and discrimination. In June, Cutler's opinion was released: Executive orders are fine, "provided they do not intrude into . . . the policy-setting or other roles assigned to the legislative branch of city government (the City Council.)"

The mayor went too far, Councilman Dave Buhler said at the time. "I hope he's rethinking that he can't act alone."

But Anderson promptly asked a former colleague, attorney Peggy Tomsic, to write a second legal opinion. Tomsic wrote that the executive orders, since they apply strictly to city employees, are perfectly within the mayor's jurisdiction.

So sat the dueling opinions. The council formed the "separation of powers subcommittee" — Buhler, Tom Rogan and Carlton Christensen. About four months went by before the mayor and subcommittee met in November; next they exchanged letters in February and now the last — they hope — meeting is set for April 3.

"Granted, the mayor has the right to manage employees within the confines of our ordinances," Christensen said. But "we felt it was important to spell out that the ordinance is the prevailing document." The council endured "a lot of pain," he said, drafting the law requiring that employees be hired based on "job-related criteria" only. "A lifestyle which is irrelevant to successful job performance . . . shall not be used as a basis for an employment decision or disciplinary action," the ordinance states.

"They didn't want the words 'sexual orientation' in it," Anderson said.

As for the council's ordinance forbidding acceptance of gifts worth more than $50, the mayor said, "it read like IRS code. It was incredibly convoluted." His executive orders aimed to unmuddy the waters, to leave no doubt about city policy. While the city ordinance allowed inexpensive gifts such as chocolate, Anderson's order bans everything.

Even a $25 box of candy "can make people feel somehow indebted" whether they admit it or not, the mayor said. "When I was in a law firm, we sent out gifts as a gesture of good will and to curry favor with people."

Christensen, however, said he'd prefer to have the mayor defer to the council on such matters. "We needed to step forward and assert our role as the policymaking body." Buhler added that council-vetted laws should take precedence.

"We said, 'You can clarify ordinances (in executive orders), but to make that clear, make reference to an (existing) ordinance,' " he said.

"Sometimes I'm frustrated too by how slow things go," Buhler acknowledged. "But we're supposed to be a democracy. We're not a dictatorship. If (Anderson) sits in his office and issues edicts, that's more efficient, but it's not the right way to do things in America."

For his part, the mayor said the orders pertain only to administration staff, and certainly not the whole of America. "I'm not making laws. I'm setting standards for the management of employees. . . . That's what a manager does."

And if the mayor were to call all seven council members every time he made an employment decision, city government would grind to a halt, agreed both Anderson and the subcommittee members.

"His job is to run the city," Rogan said simply. "It's not our job."

The council-mayor relationship is better than it was when the executive orders were first written, Rogan added. "The mayor's very accessible," and while he's never hesitant to engage in heated debates with the council, he doesn't haul grudge baggage on to the next issue they tackle.

"I'm getting better" about communicating with council members, Anderson said, adding he's optimistic about the outcome of next Tuesday's meeting. The disagreement over the executive orders "was more of a technical nature than substantive. I think we'll end up with a good and fair accommodation."

As for future differences between himself and the council, Anderson said, "I see myself letting them know what I have in mind and discussing it with them."


E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com