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Salt Lake City mayor sues over 'gross state overreach' in Utah Inland Port Authority's creation

Biskupski declares 'We want to go to battle and get our rights back'

FILE - A section of land looking southeast at 7200 West and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.
FILE - A section of land looking southeast at 7200 West and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has long said the Utah Inland Port Authority would have its "day in court," though she hasn't explicitly said she planned to sue.

That changed Monday. Biskupski's going to battle.

The mayor called a rushed news conference outside the Salt Lake City-County Building to announce she had directed city attorneys to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority.

"I have been clear since last year that I believe the state of Utah has violated the firmly established role of municipal governments," Biskupski said in a news release issued Monday evening. "Rather than work to correct this error, the state is preparing to double down on the worst parts of this legislation—seizing even more tax dollars and taking steps to close the courtroom door to me and other mayors who may be impacted by this gross state overreach."

Biskupski filed the suit despite a bill moving forward in the Utah Legislature that allows the port authority to expand its reach outside of its already 16,000-acre jurisdiction in Salt Lake County's northwest quadrant and includes a provision that aims to block a lawsuit from a city unless it has approval from the City Council.

The Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee voted 4-0 on Monday to advance HB433 forward. It has one more stop in front of the full Senate, where lawmakers will decide whether to send the bill to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk.

Biskupski said after listening to concerned residents, city attorneys and outside legal counsel, she decided to file the suit Monday, "before this year's legislation takes effect."

"As mayor, I absolutely had to pull the trigger on this lawsuit," the mayor said. "At the end of the day, core municipal functions are being grabbed by the Legislature and given to the port authority, and there's no legal precedent for that. We want to go to battle and get our rights back."

The action comes ahead of what's expected to be a tough election year for Biskupski, with several candidates already lining up to challenge her. Asked whether her move was political, Biskupski pushed back.

"This isn't about my politics or my re-election," Biskupski said. "This is about standing up for the residents of Salt Lake City. And I had to do it — time was running out."

Council vs. mayor

The Salt Lake City Council has been at-odds with Biskupski since last year, after council members negotiated with state leaders to make changes to the legislation that created the port authority. Biskupski, meanwhile, has stood firm on her position to not negotiate on legislation that she says has been "designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature's will."

"As mayor, I took an oath to protect Salt Lake City in every action I take," Biskupski said. "The inland port represents one of the greatest threats to Salt Lake City — and frankly, to the rights of cities and towns, the form of government closest to the people.

"While I do not take this action lightly, I take it with full confidence that I am doing what is right for the residents of Salt Lake City," the mayor said.

Last year, amid fears that Biskupski would file a suit, the Salt Lake City Council took action in an attempt to block the mayor, placing a "contingent appropriation" through the city budget on "impact litigation" — or a major lawsuit like one against the inland port.

Asked about that move, Biskupski said it won't stop her.

"We got a legal opinion that essentially that would be usurping the powers of the mayor and therefore they would actually have to take legal action to stop me," Biskupski said.

Asked if she expects a legal fight with the council, Biskupski said, "I hope not."

"I hope what we see going forward is a strong legal battle that really just needs to be decided," the mayor said. "And I would call upon my council members to stand with me on this finally — that this really is the right thing to do."

It's not yet clear what kind of financial impact the lawsuit will have on the city. When asked, Biskupki said the cost is unknown, "but we do not need approval from the council to finance this lawsuit."

Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke issued a prepared statement later Monday saying the council did not know about the suit until after it was filed. He pointed to the steps the council took last year to prohibit the mayor from suing, but it's not clear what the council will do now.

"The council is committed to working productively with our state partners to look out for the best interest of Salt Lake City residents," Luke said. "The council is currently reviewing our options related to this lawsuit.”

'Not great news'

Despite the mayor's opposition, HB433 has had support from members of the Salt Lake City Council — who have negotiated with the bill's sponsor and Utah Inland Port Authority board member, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson.

Biskupski's lawsuit names the Utah Inland Port Authority, its chairman, Derek Miller, and Gov. Gary Herbert.

Gibson did not immediately return a request for comment after Biskupski's filing. Herbert's office declined to comment to the Deseret News, citing pending litigation.

Miller, late Monday evening, issued a prepared statement saying the port authority will continue business as usual while the courts hash out the lawsuit.

“Unless otherwise directed by a higher authority, the Utah Inland Port Board will continue its work to collaborate on the strategic planning for Utah’s future," Miller said. "The board is focused on developing the most technologically advanced port through informed and conscious decisions that will create jobs, reduce growth impacts, and economically benefit Salt Lake County and the entire state.

Miller noted Salt Lake City has zoned more than 20,000 acres in the city's northwest quadrant as light manufacturing.

"If left as is, this zoning will result in far greater impacts to the environment, traffic congestion and the surrounding communities than the coordinated plan of a properly sequenced port," Miller said.

As news of the suit spread, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said it came as a surprise that does not bode well for the Utah Inland Port — which has been envisioned to be the largest economic development project in Utah's history.

"It's not great news," Adams said. "I think we hate to see lawsuits. The inland port has such significant potential for economic development. Whatever the disagreements are, we're all hopeful they can be resolved."

'That takes guts'

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson and several outspoken critics of the Utah Inland Port stood alongside Biskupski during her announcement, crediting the mayor for going to battle with state leaders.

"That takes guts," Wilson said, patting Biskupski on the shoulder.

Wilson said he sees "nothing but folly" when it comes to the organizational structure of the port authority's 11-member board, noting it leaves "two bosses," the city and state, at odds over how the area is developed and serviced.

"You go through one issue after another. Police. Fire. Zoning. And on and on and on," Wilson said.

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity who has been among the loudest critics of the inland port, and Richard Holman, co-chair of the West Side Coalition, also joined Biskupski.

Seed called the mayor "courageous" for "taking the kind of action that our community has been calling out for."

"The fact that they have usurped this land that exists within our city boundaries and are operating as an unelected, unaccountable board making decisions about the future of land that comprises about a third of our city is truly appalling," Seed said. "But today, finally our mayor is taking action on our behalf."

Holman said he hopes Biskupski's lawsuit will resolve, once and for all, whether the state can exert power over cities like it has over Salt Lake City.

"It's time that we take action, and I'm glad someone stepped up to do it," Holman said.

Bill chugs along

Earlier Monday, some environmental groups and concerned residents continued to push back against HB433, calling it a mechanism to support and subsidize fossil fuel exports, while others have taken up a neutral position on the bill after negotiating some clean energy incentives within the legislation.

Gibson, presenting the bill to the Senate committee earlier Monday, said the debate about whether Utah will have an inland port has already come and gone.

Now, Gibson said, the debate is whether to add the ability for the inland port to function with a "hub-and-spoke" model, where the main hub would exist in Salt Lake City, and spokes would branch out to other rural areas where exports such as hay or coal could clear international customs without being hauled all the way to Utah's capital.

"The inland port was always envisioned to be a Utah Inland Port Authority, not just a Salt Lake inland port authority," Gibson said.

Gibson noted "shipping is one of the biggest costs when it comes to business," and allowing exports a more direct path out of state would not only save money but also limit the amount of truck traffic coming into Salt Lake City.

Under HB433, the port authority would be able to expand outside of its jurisdiction if a city, county or landowner agrees.

Again, as he did in a previous committee, Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke spoke in favor of the bill, thanking Gibson for working with the council to address concerns.

Gibson's bill surfaced after officials from rural areas — including Carbon, Box Elder, Millard and Tooele counties — began expressing a desire to partner with the Utah Inland Port Authority to maximize export business.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

Correction: A previous version misidentified Richard Holman as Richard Holmes and called him the chairman of the West Side Coaltion. He's the co-chairman of the West Side Coalition.