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Opinion: Utah deals with angry disputes in a unique way

Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall could have ignited a fight with lawmakers when she imposed a mask mandate in schools. But both she and lawmakers handled the situation right

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at a press conference.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is joined by City Council members and local business owners as she announces she is using her office’s emergency powers to keep a mask mandate in place during a press conference at the City-County Building on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. The mayor recently announced a mask mandate for schools.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Global and national events over the last few weeks have made for a rough time for everyone. Locally, however, some actions on controversial issues inspire hope, at least in political discourse among our leaders and citizens. We explain.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced an “emergency” declaration requiring masks in the Salt Lake City School District, notwithstanding statutory prohibitions. Observers expected a major fight between her and the Legislature, but none occurred. What happened?

Pignanelli: “We don’t need to share the same opinions as others, but we need to be respectful.”—Taylor Swift. Although rare in current political discourse, bouts of common sense and decency do erupt — often in our beloved state. Social media activists, special interest organizations and some traditional journalists were hoping for a public tussle between lawmakers and the mayor.

Mendenhall and her staff deserve credit for rejecting the temptation of demonizing legislators (an activity several of her predecessors enjoyed). She articulated a policy based upon interpretation of the statute, drawing a careful distinction without using personalities. Legislators were not happy and voiced their objections to the city’s analysis, but not to individuals. Lawmakers were firm but statesmanlike.

Both sides understand that they were representing their constituents in the voicing of opinions. However, they refused to throw red meat to their base with personal attacks. These officials have been recipients of numerous nasty emails that disparage their intelligence and character. Avoidance of similar measures deserve praise.

The issue of whether the city can force a mask mandate on the schools remains open, but our leaders are revealing the best of democracy, arguing in public with respect. We all hope for more such eruptions.

Webb: While some progressives love to demean legislative leaders as right-wing Neanderthals, a number of examples exist showing the Legislature ruling with a light touch rather than an iron fist.

Lawmakers did not impose a statewide mask mandate ban, which was wise. They recognized that Utah is diverse enough that final decisions should be left to local governments. Top legislative leaders also joined Gov. Spencer Cox in supporting the “balanced approach” taken by Utah universities that have required vaccinations. Leaders have endorsed collaboration among elected officials, medical experts and local officials as the best way forward on these controversial issues.

Certainly, COVID-19 restrictions, masking and vaccinations have produced much anger and hot debate in Utah and elsewhere. But these debates are occurring, for the most part, at local levels, closest to the people, where these things should be decided. Salt Lake City is different than, say, St. George, so legislators were wise not to overturn the mayor.

There will be strong disagreements, of course, even at the local level, as evidenced by rowdy crowds at Salt Lake County Council meetings and the debate there over school mask mandates.

But whether citizens agree or disagree with a decision by their local government, at least they can be heard by their elected leaders and feel like they were listened to. That doesn’t happen as readily when the state or federal governments impose one-size-fits-all laws and mandates.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson recently penned an op-ed asking Utahns to engage in the redistricting process, even drawing their own maps. Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson and the State School Board have not demanded a blanket mask mandate, deferring to local decision-making. Why the attempt to soothe these controversial issues?

Pignanelli: Wilson is an expert in promoting public hearings on legislative matters (prison relocation, tax reform, etc.) Thus, encouraging participation in this very political process could reduce acrimony. Also, he is indirectly explaining that the Redistricting Commission does not replace citizen input, an important consideration.

Dickson is one of the most talented and intelligent officials the state has ever enjoyed. She and her education colleagues could have demanded Cox issue a mandate and let him endure the arrows. We are in the second school year of a pandemic and the battle over masks would be disruptive to the classroom. They are receiving criticism but are pushing their priority with dignity.

Webb: We are in a period of unprecedented divisiveness, anger, feelings of helplessness, irrationality and acrimony. Much of this arises from national events, but politics can be just as nasty at the local level. Astute and sensitive leaders are wise to cool the passions rather than pour fuel on the fire.

Can this goodwill expand or even survive?

Pignanelli: Utahns treasure problem-solving over bomb throwing. However, they are not great at vocalizing their public support for such aptitudes. But they need to do so to keep this trajectory alive. Collaboration over settling scores must be our common demand.

Webb: Leaders set the tone, and Utah has fine leaders. It is unfortunate the federal government isn’t governed by such common sense. The federal civil rights attorneys who are apparently investigating Utah for violations obviously didn’t even read Utah’s law dealing with mask mandates. It does not impose a general, statewide mask mandate prohibition as the feds seem to believe. The federal government could learn a lot from the way Utah addresses disputes.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.