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Mayor Jackie Biskupski refuses to 'endorse' City Council port negotiations

Concerns raised amid rumblings of special session next week over Utah Inland Port Authority

FILE - Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Deputy Chief of Staff David Litvack listen during a special Salt Lake City Council work session at the Salt Lake City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 9, 2018.
FILE - Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Deputy Chief of Staff David Litvack listen during a special Salt Lake City Council work session at the Salt Lake City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 9, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid rumblings of a possible special legislative session next week to make changes to the controversial law creating the Utah Inland Port Authority, Salt Lake City's mayor is pushing back against her own City Council.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski says she's "deeply concerned" by the council's negotiations with state leaders.

"While my staff and I will continue to provide insight and participate in informal dialogue with you and your staff, this administration will not endorse the behind-the-scenes negotiations you are currently involved in, which is absent of a public process," Biskupski wrote in a letter to Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall.

The letter was sent Wednesday and obtained by the Deseret News Thursday.

The mayor also cited concerns with transparency and pushback from community members frustrated over how elected officials have been handling the creation of the inland port as reasons not to call a special session.

"Given the current acrimony, now is not the time for us as city leaders to participate in a rushed special session, rather it is time for us to choose to support the requests of our community partners," Biskupski says in the letter.

Biskupski's letter came in response to a letter from Mendenhall on Tuesday, inviting the mayor to participate in negotiations after several invitations to the mayor in June and July were declined.

"Although our invitations to you and your staff to get engaged in the discussion and participate in the meetings (extended on June 16, June 27 and July 7) were declined, it is not too late for you to be a part of the promising progress," Mendenhall wrote. "We ask you to allow your staff to participate in the working group and re-establish communication between our office and administration staff on this topic."

The tension between the council and the mayor comes after negotiations broke down between Biskupski and the governor in May ahead of a previously planned special session to alter SB234, the law that creates the 11-member board that would control the creation of a Utah inland port on about 20,000 acres in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant.

When a never-before-seen version of SB234 cleared the House and Senate on the second to last day of the 2018 session, it included provisions that dismayed city leaders, including giving the port authority power to usurp the city's ultimate land use authority and the power to capture 100 percent of the project area's tax increment.

Thursday afternoon, City Council members and state leaders, including Gov. Gary Herbert, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton and he sponsor of SB234) met privately in the governor's office for more than two hours discussing possible changes to SB234. Biskupski didn't attend.

The specifics of the changes to SB234 that are under negotiation remained unclear Thursday, as well as whether the governor will indeed be calling a special session next week.

Mendenhall and Councilmen Charlie Luke and James Rogers told reporters after the meeting they were encouraged by discussions with state leaders but did not indicate whether they were promising enough to plan for a special session.

"It was a cooperative and productive discussion," Mendenhall said, but she added "any decision about a special session is squarely in the governor's court."

In response to questions about Thursday's meeting and whether a special session is being considered for next week, Herbert's staff Thursday did not immediately provide any information. Herbert's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, referred questions to staff, stating in a text message he was out-of-state and unavailable.

In response to Biskupski's protests of their meetings with state leaders, Mendenhall said she was "surprised" the mayor would categorize the meetings as back-room when the mayor "participated in sole negotiations with the governor" earlier this spring ahead of an earlier possible special session that failed.

"For Salt Lake City, for our taxpayers and our residents, the city should stand together," Mendenhall said. "So the door remains open for the mayor to participate in these conversations. The reasoning why she isn't is unknown to me."

But Luke said he wasn't surprised, calling Biskupski's actions "consistent with her denials of the past few weeks to participate with us in this."

"It just seemed to restate their unwillingness to work collaboratively with the council and other stakeholders," Luke said of the mayor and her staff.

Rogers also chimed in, adding: "Whether the mayor's here or not, we're here, and we want to make something happen."

"If you have somebody willing to work with you to address those issues, why wouldn't you get it done. It makes no sense to me at all. You have the state, you have the House, you have the Senate, they're all here willing to listen to your grievances — what we're upset about. And here they are listening and I feel like we're having our voices heard. Where's the mayor? I mean if she's so concerned about environmental issues, she should be up here discussing them."

But Biskupski in her letter cited concerns from community members upset over the inland port's creation process thus far as reasons to end closed-door negotiations. She cited a "high level of distrust among residents" surrounding the inland port, and that the "feeling is only exasperated by continuing lack of transparency and public engagement as negotiations occur with the state."

"While I understand there is a desire to move expeditiously, it is clear to me that in order to gain public trust and truly protect Salt Lake City's interests, this process must be more deliberate, cooperative, and guided by a clear understanding of long-term goals," Biskupski wrote.

Earlier this week, dozens of concerned community members from Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant attended a meeting at Salt Lake Community College's Westpointe Campus to discuss concerns over the inland port with Stevenson and other state leaders.

"The senators reported that 'talks' are underway in anticipation of a possible special session next week to change SB234, but they could not divulge details and seemed to be uncertain about what would be changed," leaders from the League of Women Voters, Great Salt Lake Audubon, Fairpark Community Council and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment said in a joint news release issued Tuesday.

The group also sent a letter to the governor advising against calling a special session, citing "grave concerns" with the process.

"First and foremost, the process of creating this legislation and port authority jurisdiction and governance structure has been hasty and sloppy at best, fraught with conflicts and contention, poorly explained, and conducted with minimal public outreach and input," the letter states. "The result has been a tremendous loss of credibility and public trust."