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Hughes, Biskupski get in heated spat over Operation Rio Grande plan

SALT LAKE CITY — A heated spat between Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and House Speaker Greg Hughes played out on live radio Tuesday.

The Democratic mayor and one of the state's top Republicans took turns calling into the talk show to rebuke each other over a disagreement about the plans to close and fence off a portion of Rio Grande Street to disrupt drug trafficking and create a "safe space" as an alternative for campers to go.

"I'm as frustrated as I can possibly be," Hughes said, accusing Biskupski of "actively opposing this plan" and using the closure of the area as "leverage" on the city's portion of Operation Rio Grande's budget.

"I'm just going to be blunt — and this is brutal," Hughes said. "She was leveraging the closure of that area on the budget numbers and what the city would be expected to pay."

The speaker said he called KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" after speaking with Biskupski and learning that she has been "calling the service providers and discouraging them from coming together to create this safe space" — which he said was "always a part of the plan" to continue to keep drug dealers away from the vulnerable.

But Biskupski called into the program and told a completely different story. Through her spokesman, she declined to be on air with Hughes at the same time.

The mayor said she was left "aghast" by Hughes' comments, and she's "not actively opposing anything."

"I'm not sure what's happening and why the speaker is so upset," Biskupski said, noting that her city legal teams have been working to start a public process with the City Council and create a "legislative fix" in a special session on Sept. 20 so the city could legally close the street on a permanent basis.

"Everything was on track. … Everybody was heading in that direction to meet that deadline," she said, but Hughes was "all of a sudden demanding that we close that street this week."

Biskupski said service providers won't be ready to make the closure this week, and she didn't want to make that administrative decision without the support of the City Council.

Hughes called back and asked to discuss the matter with Biskupski on live radio, but Biskupski declined, saying she had a jail bed meeting she needed to attend. When Hughes came back on the air, his account of his conversation with Biskupski was different.

"I'd spoken with the mayor before calling your program, and if she's indicating to you that she's supportive of closing that area, that would be news to me," Hughes said.

The speaker said Biskupski has the administrative power to temporarily close the road now — which he said is needed to prevent drug traffickers from finding new ways to prey on the homeless.

"The timing is critical here," he said. "We're going to lose ground to these drug cartels. They have not gone away."

Hughes, joined by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, came to the Salt Lake City Council meeting on Tuesday and briefed the council on Operation Rio Grande's efforts — a discussion that did not touch on the discord between Biskupski and the speaker.

After the meeting, Biskupski shook Hughes' hand, smiling and saying: "We'll get there. We'll get there. Don't worry."

But the two still had issues to sort out, with neither budging on how soon the Rio Grande Street closure should occur, despite standing side-by-side as they fielded questions from reporters.

"At the end of the day, we're friends," Biskupski said. "We will consistently work together through all of this. And as you can see I have some council members I am accountable to."

She said she wasn't using the road closure as "leverage" for the city's portion of Operation Rio Grande's budget, and that it "never even crossed my mind," dismissing Hughes' accusation on the radio waves just hours before.

The mayor said she still did not plan to use her administrative power to close the road temporarily by "skipping" the public process with the City Council. She instead suggested an "interim fix," to use the courtyards of both the Catholic Community Services' Weigand Center and The Road Home as that space while that process plays out.

"We can still achieve this goal of safe space for the next three weeks while we do this public process," she said.

But the speaker said Biskuspki's suggestion doesn't quell his concerns.

Just this week, Hughes said, spice joints were being sold just "under the shade of a tree" outside the Weigand Center's courtyard, and he believes a larger area is needed to adequately shield people from the drug cartels.

"What we are losing is time. And I will tell you that the time that we lose comes at a cost. It comes by either that street changing back unfortunately to what it's been before or it comes at a cost of higher and more intense law enforcement, which we have not contemplated inside this budget," Hughes said.

Still, the ball remains in the city's court.

"I'm not one to sit on my hands, but I don't really have a choice," Hughes said. "I don't know. We'll see what happens."

Hughes' and Biskupski's discord comes a day after a closed-door meeting in which state, city and county leaders discussed Operation Rio Grande and its projected budget.

The two-year, multijurisdictional effort to root out crime in the troubled neighborhood and help provide treatment to the addicted is expected to cost $67 million, but there is about a $21 million funding gap.

State leaders expect to pay about $10.5 million of that gap over two years, but the city and county would need to split the remaining $10.5 million by coming up with $2.6 million each for the next two years.

But Salt Lake City leaders say the city will likely end up needing to pay much more than $2.6 million a year for the effort — an issue the City Council was briefed on during its meeting Tuesday, but took no action, needing more time to work through the figures.

"The numbers just came out yesterday; I don't have any expectation that the council in a 24-hour period is prepared to speak about (the budget)," said Council Chairman Stan Penfold. "We're not ready to make recommendations on where to find any of that money."