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Salt Lake mayor wants injunction to bring Utah Inland Port Authority to 'screeching halt'

Jackie Biskupski calls lawsuit Salt Lake City's 'only hope to rectify this disaster'

FILE - Mayor Jackie Biskupski addresses the major challenges and opportunities facing the city in her fourth State of the City speech at East High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.
FILE - Mayor Jackie Biskupski addresses the major challenges and opportunities facing the city in her fourth State of the City speech at East High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski amended her lawsuit against the Utah Inland Port Authority, further challenging the constitutionality of the state-created agency she said has "railroaded" Utah's capital.

And the mayor and her administration have requested a preliminary injunction — aiming to stop the port board in its tracks while the case sits in court.

"Everything needs to come to a screeching halt until the courts can make a decision about our constitutional challenge," Biskupski told reporters Monday.

The mayor aims to stop the Utah Inland Port Authority — the 11-member board in charge of the development of a network of trucks, trains and air connections to maximize the state's foothold in the global trade market — from spending a $5 million loan granted from the state earlier this year for infrastructure, under the condition the port authority repay the loan with property tax revenue collected from the port's future development.

"If the authority is allowed to proceed with this loan and to begin using the city's property tax increment, the city will suffer irreparable harm," Biskupski said. "To protect the taxpayers of Salt Lake City while this case proceeds, it is our hope the court will honor this injunction request.

"There is no question that this lawsuit is Salt Lake City's only hope to rectify this disaster," the mayor said.

Biskupski's office announced the new court filing in a news release Monday, stating the amended complaint addresses changes made in HB433, the legislation passed by the Utah Legislature this year after Biskupski walked away from negotiations with Gov. Gary Herbert.

Biskupski refused to engage, standing firm on her position not to negotiate on a bill that she says has been "designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature's will."

But members of the Salt Lake City Council negotiated with state leaders to give some concessions to the city in a bill passed during a 2018 special session.

Another version of the bill passed earlier this year also removed language prohibiting a city from bringing a lawsuit against the port authority, but allowed the Utah Inland Port Authority to expand its reach to other areas of the state outside of its already 16,000-acre jurisdiction and partner with willing communities, including rural areas eager to maximize export opportunities for coal, oil, gas, hay or other products.

HB433 also increased the period of time the port authority can take property tax increment from 25 years to 40 years, and allows the port authority to capture a portion of the city's sales tax.

"HB433 is proof that the state has no intention of negotiating in good faith or addressing any of the serious concerns raised by my administration, namely land use and taxing authority,” Biskupski said, adding that the bill "made a bad deal for Salt Lake City even worse."

The mayor's request for a preliminary injunction, if granted, would prevent the port authority from spending or committing any of the city’s property tax increment or sales tax revenue pending the outcome of the case. Additionally, the injunction would prevent the port authority from engaging in any planning, design, or construction of site improvements or public infrastructure in the jurisdictional area.

Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority and president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, did not directly address Biskupski's amended complaint in a prepared statement Monday.

"We will let the politicians and lawyers argue and fight while the board moves forward building the most technologically advanced port in the nation," Miller said.

The city has begun the process of serving the named parties in the lawsuit, including Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah Inland Port Authority and Attorney General Sean Reyes, according to the mayor's office.

In response to a request for comment, a spokeswoman for Herbert said the governor's office doesn't comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

The city attorney has also sent a copy of the filings to the Salt Lake City Council, according to the mayor's office.

Council Chairman Charlie Luke said the council was notified about the filing once it was submitted to court and was not included or briefed on its contents.

"Now that the amendments are within the court system, we are anxious to see whether the city's authority can be restored," Luke said. "The Salt Lake City Council unanimously has done everything within our ability to mitigate damage to the city."

Biskupski has clashed with the City Council on their past negotiations with state leaders. Last week, in a meeting with port opponents, Biskupski criticized the City Council for not standing with her on the lawsuit.

Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who was chairwoman of the council last year during negotiations with the state and is now campaigning along with seven other candidates to take Biskupski's place as mayor when she leaves office at the end of the year, fired back at Biskupski, calling her a "failed mayor."

"She left no choice but for the council to step up to clean up the mess she’d created," Mendenhall said in a statement last week. "When Mayor Biskupski walked away, the taxpayers of Salt Lake City lost their seat at the inland port negotiations — an irresponsible and unacceptable action by someone charged with representing this city."

Monday, a week after Biskupski's criticisms of the council, the mayor called for unity among Salt Lake City elected officials, saying she hopes the court filing will act as a "reset."

"We may not agree with each other on everything, but I hope we can agree that we need the court's clarification of the limits of state authority and the proper role of municipal government," Biskupski said.

"Let us finally stand united to fight this unprecedented attack on our community," she continued. "Let us commit to see this case through to the end, and let us pledge not to compromise our values under the guise of negotiation. Our responsibility to the residents of Salt Lake City is to fight for their values, not just a seat at the table."

Asked what will happen to the lawsuit once she leaves office, Biskupski said Salt Lake voters need to choose their next mayor wisely. She said that while most candidates say they support the lawsuit, "I question some of that because of past actions of some of the candidates."

"But I will say to you this community absolutely should be voting for a mayor who will without question pursue this lawsuit beyond my tenure," she said.

Biskupski stopped short of endorsing any candidate, saying "everyone has to decide who that person is going to be. But she did name Sen. Luz Escamilla as the only mayoral candidate "who has stood strong on this issue," noting her voting record on inland port-related legislation.

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity as well as a lead organizer of the group Stop the Polluting Port, applauded Biskupski, saying she's "proved again she is our champion."

"I'm really heartened that this next step has been taken, and it's been taken in a really powerful way," she said. "The battle is now in the courts, and we'll find out and get a ruling one way or another. But it's important for all of Utah to have this issue decided. If it can happen to Salt Lake City, it can happen anywhere."

Biskupski said she expects some sort of action from the courts by September.