SALT LAKE CITY — After Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank was forced to resign Thursday in the wake of a pending sexual harassment lawsuit, mayoral candidates wasted no time railing against Mayor Ralph Becker.
The candidates say Becker pushed Burbank to resign not as a necessary mayoral duty, but rather because he succumbed to political pressure during an election year.
While some City Council members agree Burbank had to go, they also criticized Becker for not acting soon enough.
Three female officers reported sexual harassment by a superior officer in 2013, which the women say left them fearing retribution for months.
The three women filed a notice of claim with Salt Lake City in October announcing their intention to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city, the department, Deputy Chief Rick Findlay and Burbank. That lawsuit has not yet been filed.
Former state legislator Jackie Biskupski, who is running against Becker, called the mayor's actions "too little, too late."
"You have to wonder … why wasn't (Becker's) response then what it is today?" Biskupski said. "His response is what it is today because of pressure he is feeling in his race, I'm sure of it."
City Council Chairman Luke Garrott, who is also running against the mayor, said a "lack of accountability" and unfairness to the women who filed the lawsuit "sits squarely on the lap of the mayor."
Garrott said "it's no coincidence" that Becker took steps against Burbank during the election year, after the issue came to the media's attention.
"When (the City Council) heard about this, it was scandalous," he said. "And the fact that it continued and went on, you wonder about the mayor’s commitment to employees."
George Chapman, a community activist and another candidate running against Becker, released a statement defending Burbank.
"Burbank has given 25 years of his life for this city and did not deserve the disrespect that Becker gave him," Chapman said. "Burbank made Salt Lake City a better city. He defused difficult situations and earned the trust and respect of the citizens of this city. Becker controls the Salt Lake City Police Department tightly … (and) any decision regarding senior officers is made under the direction of Becker."
But Becker says his opponents are opportunistically and unjustly using the issue to attack him.
"This is an election year, and I understand how a campaign can heighten rhetoric," Becker said. "Fair enough. I welcome the challenge. But our political process should focus on legitimate areas of policy and leadership differences among the mayoral candidates and not trivialize or politicize issues as serious as sexual harassment, which involve victims who deserve respect and privacy."
Becker refuted critics who claim he and city administration did not take the allegations and behaviors seriously. He said Burbank did not satisfactorily implement corrective actions that had been agreed upon.
However, Burbank said Thursday he never tolerated sexual harassment within his department and that when the reports surfaced, they were "handled appropriately." He, too, said Becker forced him to resign because of "election politics."
Biskupski said Becker's statements that political candidates are taking advantage of the issue for their benefit undermines the situation.
"I'm a bit shocked that the mayor is somehow trying to say, 'Poor me, my opponents are making this situation political,'" Biskupski said. "Because it wasn't his opponents who brought this to light, it was the women. … I feel very strongly that he is not taking personal accountability."
Councilman Charlie Luke said the mayor's announcement came as a surprise to City Council members, not because Burbank's handling of the issue didn't justify his dismissal, but rather because it took so long for it to happen.
"If this is a dismissable offense now, it was a dismissable offense last year," Luke said. He added that he raised questions to city administration last year when he served as council chairman, asking why Findlay continued on administrative leave until he was eligible for 20-year retirement benefits and then resigned.
"They were never satisfactorily answered," he said. "Chief Burbank's behavior was as unacceptable then as it is today."
Luke and Councilman Kyle LaMalfa both agreed Burbank could not head the police department any longer.
"Burbank was a national leader in many regards," LaMalfa said. "But unfortunately, there are some lines that you just can't cross."
Biskupski and Garrott said work needs to be done to make sure the best policies are in place to prevent and address misconduct in city departments.
"This makes you wonder about the culture of some of our organizations and how widespread dysfunctional organizational cultures might be in the city," Garrott said. "It seems very important that we take a much closer look at the climate of some of our city departments."
Biskupski criticized Becker for not addressing how management will change and handle such cases in a better way.
"There's no plan still," she said. "He's not saying, 'Here's how we'll fix it.' If firing someone is his fix, I would say he still doesn't get it. The problem is not just in the police department, and he knows that."
LaVarr Webb, political consultant and publisher of UtahPolicy.com, said while time will tell how much of an impact the issue could have on Becker's campaign, it does has a potential of damaging his image in the eyes of voters.
However, Webb also said that because of Becker's public persona and the fact that the issue arose early in the mayoral race, he believes the mayor could have time to recover politically.
"It's a big issue and a setback," Webb said, "but I think he could still be considered a favorite in the race."