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New Salt Lake council members optimistic, outgoing leaders critical of mayor

New council members hope to ease relationship between council and administration

SALT LAKE CITY — New Salt Lake City Council members Amy Fowler and Chris Wharton hugged outgoing Councilwoman Lisa Adams and Councilman Stan Penfold after taking the oath of office Tuesday.

The two new council members, joined by second-term Councilman James Rogers and Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, were met with cheers and applause from a crowd of supporters at their swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building.

After ceremoniously taking Adams' and Penfold's places next to their fellow council members, the city's newest council members expressed eagerness and hope as they look ahead to their four years on the City Council, ready to tackle tough issues such as air quality, housing and homelessness.

The two new members, both attorneys, make the council its youngest ever, with Fowler at 39 and Wharton at 34, but they also increase the panel's LGBT representation. Wharton, Fowler and Councilman Derek Kitchen identify as gay.

Wharton's husband and Fowler's wife stood by their sides as they were sworn in. In his speech, Wharton referenced Salt Lake City's diversity, from when it was founded by a "small religious minority" to how now it's become a concentration for millennials and the LGBT community.

"Frankly, it's how someone like me, a liberal, gay millennial, sixth-generation Utahn, can represent the district that includes Temple Square, the Utah Capitol, and the two oldest, most established neighborhoods in the state," he said.

Biskupski, who became Salt Lake City's first gay mayor when she was elected in 2015, said she's "very excited" to see Wharton and Fowler join the City Council.

"Here they are living a dream of theirs, and I couldn't be more proud of them," she said, adding that their election to the council shows Salt Lake City is an "evolving community."

"As we continue to evolve as a community, you learn that we are all in this together," Biskupski said, "and regardless of who you are or what you look like or how you identify yourself that we all matter, and we all have something to contribute."

Meanwhile, as Adams and Penfold parted ways, they did so with smiles and congratulations to their successors. But they also left with some frustrations.

It's no secret that the City Council has had a rocky relationship with Biskupski in the two years since she was elected mayor.

Adams and Penfold, both of whom supported former Mayor Ralph Becker in his unsuccessful 2015 race against Biskupski, describe their experience with her administration as "frustrating," alleging that she treats the council as an "obstacle" rather than a partner.

"I just don't feel the administration sees the council as an ally. It feels like we're more of an adversary," Penfold said in an interview just hours before his exit from office.

The "biggest challenge," he said, "is a breakdown of communication."

"I get the feeling the administration views the council as an obstacle, and that's unfortunate because we have a lot of important things to do," Penfold said.

Adams shared similar thoughts, noting that one reason she decided not to run for a second term was that she's been "discouraged" and "disconcerted" by Biskupski's lack of collaboration with the council.

"If I'm being really honest, I had really high hopes for the mayor that we could work well together," she said. "It has been very disappointing to me that she wants to have it her way or no way, and if it's not her idea, then it's not a good idea."

Adams and Penfold cited several examples of such frustrations, including gridlock over the homeless resource center site selection — a plan that evolved from two shelters to four, and eventually three — as well as the mayor's initially negative reaction to the council's efforts to set aside $21 million in Redevelopment Agency funds for affordable housing last fall.

Those funds sat unallocated for about a year until the council last month approved its own plan on how to spend the money, which Biskupski ultimately supported.

"I don't know what to say to it because that's an opinion," Biskupski said in response to Adams' and Penfold's criticisms, noting that there's an "interesting dynamic" between her and council members because while they complain about communication, she has tried to keep an open line.

"What I will say is our administrative team has consistently been available, and, in fact, I've reminded council members to use my cellphone, and if (they) have a question or concern about something that is happening — call me," Biskupski said. "And yet, historically, that doesn't really happen."

There is a natural tension between the mayor and City Council, she said, because of the way the city's government is structured. While the mayor is "responsible for the entire city, council members are responsible for really looking after their districts," Biskupski said.

Penfold, addressing rumors that he might run against Biskupski, didn't rule out challenging her in 2019, but he said it's too early to say exactly what he'll be doing two years from now.

"But never say never," Penfold added with a laugh, and noting that he's "exploring options" for what he will be doing in the future.

Adams, who will be moving to New York in the spring for 18 months to be representatives of LDS Charities at the United Nations, said she plans to return to Salt Lake City but doesn't expect to run against Biskupski in 2019.

Wharton and Fowler, when asked about tensions between the council and the mayor, said they hope to strengthen collaboration with the administration.

"I have known Jackie for a while, and I am really looking forward to building a great relationship between the council and the mayor's office," Fowler said. "I think, in reality, these two sides of the building work really well together, and I don't think we see that out in the public enough. I think it's more about just showing that we're all in this together and that we really do love this city, and that's all that matters."

Wharton said as part of his transition process he's met with all the city's department heads and the mayor, and he's hopeful "we can work together."

"Ultimately (residents) want to see the work of the city get done, and that's what we're here to do and not necessarily play politics all day, so I hope that will happen," he said.

A few hours after the swearing-in ceremony, the council in its first 2018 meeting voted to make Mendenhall the council's chairwoman. Wharton was selected as vice chairman.