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Salt Lake City mayoral candidates clash over inland port in televised debate as Election Day nears

Erin Mendenhall, Luz Escamilla debate inland port, youth suicide, closure of downtown shelter in KSL-TV studios

Salt Lake City mayoral candidates Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall chat as they walk off the stage following a televised debate at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Salt Lake City mayoral candidates Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall chat as they walk off the stage following a televised debate at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Who’s to blame over the Utah Inland Port Authority controversy drew the testiest exchanges between Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla in a debate broadcast on live TV Monday.

The candidates exchanged fire over who has the cleanest record when it comes to the port authority, a state-created board that city leaders argue has usurped city land use and taxing authority.

“My record on the inland port is perfectly clear,” Escamilla said, contending she has “voted against it in every opportunity” and pointing to legislation she championed to collect baseline data for air and water quality in the port authority’s 16,000-acre jurisdiction in northwest Salt Lake City.

Mendenhall then turned on the attack, questioning Escamilla’s record by pointing out the senator didn’t vote on a large transportation funding bill earlier this year, SB268 that included $28 million for construction of infrastructure related to the Utah Inland Port Authority.

“I think, actually, it’s important to note it’s not exactly accurate that you’ve fought the port at every angle,” Mendenhall said, pointing to the bill and drawing a parallel between Escamilla’s absence on that bill and current Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s refusal to continue negotiating with state leaders on the inland port legislation.

“The senator walked out on that bill. It had $28 million explicitly for the port, and she walked out on it,” Mendenhall said. “We can’t afford a mayor who walks out on inland port conversations anymore.”

Salt Lake City Mayoral candidates Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall debate at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Salt Lake City mayoral candidates Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall debate at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The $28 million figure matches the same dollar amount Salt Lake City leaders have recently come under fire for approving as a tax reimbursement for developers of a warehouse development in the port authority area before the Utah Legislature created the port authority — an issue Escamilla has attacked Mendenhall on in previous debates, arguing city leaders paved the way for an inland port by rezoning the area as part of the city’s 2015 northwest quadrant master plan.

Monday, Escamilla lashed back at Mendenhall with those same criticisms, saying the “community doesn’t trust the leadership in the city and feels uncomfortable with the whole process. She argued the bill Mendenhall pointed to was “not an inland port bill” but rather was more related to the Utah State Prison, which was sited in the port jurisdiction and was a major driver for infrastructure in the remote area. She also referenced Mendenhall’s negotiations with Gov. Gary Herbert and other state leaders on a special session bill to make alterations to the port authority legislation.

“So yeah, we need infrastructure in the state prison,” Escamilla said. “I wasn’t there, I would have voted in that situation with everything else that was on the list, but to me it’s not an inland port bill, councilwoman. Not like what you did with negotiating with the governor and the Republicans behind closed doors.”

Salt Lake City Mayoral Debate

The Pioneer Park Coalition and The Other Side Academy host a Salt Lake City mayoral debate at KSL 5 TV Studios. Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and State Senator Luz Escamilla are back on the debate stage. The debate is also being broadcast live on KSL 5 TV and the KSL TV streaming app, which you can add to your mobile or streaming device here: ksltv.com/app.

Posted by KSL 5 TV on Monday, October 21, 2019

After the debate, Escamilla told a reporter the inland port is being created in part “because of the city,” but she didn’t lay all of the blame at city leaders’ feet.

“It’s a shared responsibility. You need two to tango,” Escamilla said. “I’m not putting all of the blame on the city, all the blame on the state, it’s all the combination of things.”

In a rebuttal, Mendenhall likened Escamilla’s criticisms of city leaders’ past actions when rezoning the area for industrial uses as telling only half of the story, arguing city leaders were under pressure from state leaders to work with northwest quadrant landowners who have wanted to build an inland port, or a global trade hub, in the area.

She told a reporter after the debate the city began planning the area because state leaders had told them, “If you don’t do this, we’re going to take it away from you.”

“Ultimately what the senator is proposing here is you pick up the book of the inland port, you flip it halfway open, you start reading there, and then you criticize the characters for being stuck in the cave with the troll,” Mendenhall said in the debate. “That doesn’t work. It doesn’t help you as Salt Lake City residents, especially, to have the senator absolve the state for their responsibility of giving the city the only question of, ‘Do you want us to run the port, or are you going to do your work, Salt Lake City?’”

Escamilla then shot back, “I don’t agree with that.”

“Having a master plan that includes an inland port and zoning that area for M1 manufacturing, it was already what the city was doing,” Escamilla said. “It was the leadership of the city.”

It was the tensest of exchanges during Monday’s debate, hosted at the KSL-TV studios by the Pioneer Park Coalition and The Other Side Academy.

The debate comes with about two weeks to go until Election Day, as Mendenhall and Escamilla enter the final stretch. Ballots began hitting mailboxes last week.

In addition to the topic of the inland port, moderator Doug Wright and panelists quizzed Mendenhall and Escamilla on issues including homelessness, on-street camping, drug treatment, housing affordability, downtown business development and other issues.

Salt Lake City Mayoral candidates Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall debate at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Salt Lake City mayoral candidates Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall debate at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Also among debate questions was youth suicide, which Mendenhall responded to by pledging to joining the fight as mayor against allowing conversion therapy for minors — a hot-button issue in recent headlines as a state agency weighs a statewide rule change to ban the practice after legislation faltered in the Utah Legislature last year.

“We have to look culturally at what is it about this state’s culture that may lead kids to that decision, and I will bring up conversion therapy,” Mendenhall said. “I think the culture that is supporting that kind of narrative with our youth that doesn’t accept them for who they are has to be stopped. And I will stand as much as I can as the mayor to make that change at the state level.”

Escamilla, when asked what contributes to youth suicide, said there’s a “mix of issues,” pointing to studies that show high-altitude may contribute to suicide, while also adding LGTBQ+ youth “don’t feel safe” and noting her campaign promise to help put nurses and counselors in every Salt Lake City school.

“And that happens in many parts of the country,” Escamilla said. “It’s not unique to Salt Lake City, so I think part of why having a mental health provider or social worker available is critical is because they can tackle them right away, they can build a relationship with those children ... we need to tackle all the different pieces, it’s not only one single issue.”

After the debate, Escamilla told a reporter she’s supportive of the ban on conversion therapy and the governor’s decision to ask for an administrative rule change — but she also said it will require legislative action and she will continue to fight for that.

Throughout the debate, Mendenhall and Escamilla each made their cases as to why they were best equipped to both represent Salt Lake City values while maintaining good relationships with the state. Escamilla pointed to her record on Capitol Hill as evidence. Mendenhall pointed to her negotiations with state leaders on the inland port legislation after Biskupski walked away.

Both also pledged to work with nonprofit, state and county leaders to ensure there is additional emergency homeless shelter overflow if needed this winter to make sure the Road Home’s downtown shelter can close.

“Under my administration, no one is going to sleep on the streets,” Escamilla said, while pointing to a state audit showing problems within the Road Home’s downtown shelter as a top reason why it needs to close.

Mendenhall said she wants to see the downtown shelter close “permanently,” but she also said it shouldn’t be a rushed decision.

“It’s not within Salt Lake City’s values to allow our neighbors to freeze on the streets,” Mendenhall said, slamming state officials not having a more robust emergency shelter plan this winter. “We have snow coming people. ... We cannot wait any longer. And if it means the Road Home needs to stay open, that should not be a political decision. That should only happen when we know we can serve people.”

To watch the entire debate, watch the livestream on KSL-TV’s Facebook page.