The two candidates for Salt Lake City mayor joined the Deseret News editorial board this week to answer questions ahead of the Nov. 5 general election. Below is the transcript of an interview with Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall.

The following has been edited for length and clarity: 

The campaign so far

Deseret News: As you talk to the community, have any of your priorities changed by virtue of those conversations?

Erin Mendenhall: They have definitely been informed. And I think that’s the job — acting as a collector and then an amplifier .... And I’ve stood with community councils for seven years through some really hard times in our city — homeless resource center conversations and sales tax increases, public utilities issues and roadway construction. I’ve stood in that flow and I know from experience that no matter what the temperature of the conversation is, there’s something in there that I need to hear. That needs to come back and either affect our policy or our next budget consideration. So I feel fit, in the sense that I’ve had this practice as a candidate of standing in that flow every day and going forward. I’m ready to make that my daily work.

DN: What did they tell you? 

EM: No big surprises, actually. Concern about our infrastructure, which is the No. 1 issue that I think Salt Lake City needs to tackle. Air quality for sure. Actually, infrastructure and air quality are in many ways intersectional. Affordable housing, public safety, addressing homeless needs on our streets, which I think have reached a crescendo. That’s one of the conversations that evolved the most during the campaign this year. The on-street presence and how much a rising concern that is for people all over the city. These are all issues that I brought to the table.

Solving the homelessness issue

DN: On the homeless issue, everybody’s concerned — business owners, residents, the homeless themselves. It’s getting cold and the new shelters are crowded. Do you support closing the Road Home?

EM: The city has never been asked if we wanted it to remain open or be closed, particularly since the state acquired it. ... I would love the city to have a part in that dialogue. The state has said that when certain milestones are reached, then the Road Home can close. I think the city should have a role in the conversation about what those milestones look like, and also about the continuation of support from the Utah Highway Patrol in the downtown area around the Rio Grande. 

I am concerned about the culture of the Road Home. I’m concerned that hundreds of people could be left without a warm, safe place to sleep this winter. I do think that this is a state, county and city collaborative conversation about what is our emergency winter option. And I will say that I’m highly concerned that the placement of that emergency shelter may not be in the city’s hands, but in the state’s.

I’m highly concerned that the placement of that emergency shelter may not be in the city’s hands, but in the state’s.

DN: What is the emergency plan from your perspective?

EM: Until Oct. 13 and before that, we had no overflow capacity for women aside from the opportunity of motel vouchers. St. Vincent de Paul hasn’t hosted women historically. They also have gone from a 90-bed capacity down to about 50 with the expansion of their kitchen, and none of those beds have been available to women until today. Also, as of last week, the women’s homeless resource center is at capacity. They have 40 beds for women at the men’s and women’s homeless resource center. ... So I’m concerned immediately about women’s access to shelter, as arguably the most vulnerable population outside of children and families. 

So it’s encouraging to see that St. Vincent has been adaptive and is finding a way to get women into that facility. At the same time, they really don’t have enough beds. So this conversation could be about where the state would locate an additional winter overflow shelter. It may also be about coming together with finding funding for motel vouchers and alternative spaces to house people temporarily.

DN: Is there money to do that?

EM: It’s all a matter of priorities. Even in our very last meeting in December, two, maybe three years ago, we had to do an emergency budget because St. Vincent didn’t have enough funding to staff the people in order to accommodate the need on the streets that winter, and we stepped up with that money when we needed to. So it’s a matter of priorities because this isn’t a Salt Lake City conversation by ourselves. The county, other cities and the state need to be accountable. 

DN: Are you more capable of handling this issue than your competitor, Luz Escamilla?

EM: I am running for mayor because I believe I am. I’ve been working at City Hall with that very budget, with the tools that we have as a city, recognizing what tools we do not have and where partnerships need to happen, and advocating for our city for six years. It’s a different skill set, I believe, than being in the political minority in the state of Utah. I’m grateful for the Democrats on the Hill, as a Salt Lake resident, but I think it’s a very different toolbox that they work in than we do.

The decision to run

DN: What was the tipping point for you where you decided you wanted to be mayor?

EM: I was the last into the race of the eight of us. I didn’t see another candidate who I felt could take us where we needed to go. I had heard a lot about the problems and why they’re important and why we need to make a change. I didn’t see other candidates bringing the vision of how we’re actually going to achieve it. What do we have in control? What don’t we have in control? What do we actually need to invent tools on? What have we dropped the ball on? How do we improve our permitting process? If you want to tell me things are rough, tell me how you’re going to fix it.

Erin Mendenhall answers a question during a debate with other Salt Lake City mayoral candidates in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 15, 2019. The debate was broadcast live from KSL-TV studios.
Erin Mendenhall answers a question as Salt Lake City mayoral candidates speak during a debate at KSL broadcast house in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 15, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Affordable housing

DN: Mayor Jackie Biskupski told us before she ran that there were too many roadblocks for easing building restrictions to allow more housing and she wanted to change that. Has anything been done? What will you do?

EM: Let me start with in-house and then I’ll talk about where we go on the ground outside of City Hall. In-house, I helped to fund a building services audit, that the very intention was to look at what are these roadblocks for developers in getting permits and getting through City Hall just so you can build or grow your business. And the last I heard we had implemented about 65% of the suggestions that came from that audit. Implementation of and directing administrative staff to do things is squarely on the shoulders of the mayor. I, as a council person, haven’t had the privilege of coming to understand why the other 35% wasn’t implemented. But clearly, just from the information available to the public and the council, there’s some space for us to grow. 

But you don’t have to go deep into an audit, it’s just talking to someone at the permitting desk who is trying to get their kitchen remodeled or build a new multifamily housing complex or be able to open a taco shop downtown. People have troubles all along that spectrum. And so to improve our process, we need to get it to under 90 days for permits in Salt Lake City. We know that there’s an audit tool that’s shown some of those pathways. It may not be all of them. And also, building developers are willing to pay to go through the process. This doesn’t mean hiking up the rates in order to participate, but if we need more staff in order to go through things faster or we need to hire additional inspectors, that’s what permit processes are paying for. And development costs to developers for delaying action nine months, 12 months, 24 months just to get things done is exponentially greater than what it would cost for us to have a functional process in City Hall. 

Stepping outside of City Hall — Salt Lake City has issues of segregation: economically, in affordable housing and diversity of housing types, transportation access and transit access. And I don’t believe that anyone in City Hall is intentionally perpetuating the racism that is baked into our zoning and how our city is distributed today. … I’ll give you two examples. One is accessory dwellings. That was stalled in City Hall for about nine years. No City Council chair could bring it to a vote because it was split or it wasn’t the way the chair wanted it to be. And when we talk about expanding accessory dwellings, like mother-in-law units — we should have called it the cabana ordinance because it would have made a lot more sense — but the proposal was to expand the allowance of it. It was acutely tied to transit routes, not bus, but fixed rails. So we only had two, maybe three ever built in the city. 

We wanted to expand it to more areas, but east of 13th East and the avenues said “not in my backyard. We don’t want it here.” That’s not geographic equity. That’s the city, based on zoning, which is historically implicitly biased, allowing certain areas of the city, more affluent areas, to say we don’t want a diversity of housing. And I am oversimplifying, because I don’t think there’s a single neighborhood in Salt Lake City that doesn’t already have granny units and feel the impacts of bad renters or an errant landlord. That’s the nature of a historic city. And that’s not what they are, actually. But I wasn’t willing to bring it to a vote and perpetuate a concentration of diverse housing types primarily just on the west side of Salt Lake City and in more economically diverse neighborhoods. If we’re going to grow as a city, we need to do it carefully so that we expand housing types across the city. 

If we’re going to grow as a city, we need to do it carefully so that we expand housing types across the city. 

I was the chair the last time we brought it to a vote in December and it unanimously passed for citywide application. The important part of that isn’t just to say we’re done with this inequity. The City Council committed — actually directed — the planning department to track data and analytics. How many applications came in? Where were they actually going? What did they look like in the context of our neighborhood? Do our design guidelines and requirements actually result in buildings that fit in the context of the neighborhood? What is the parking impact like? And so they’re analyzing and tracking all of that. Sometime between June and December of next year this is all going to come back to the City Council for the council to potentially reconsider that decision. And look at the impact on the city. That’s the kind of evaluation of policies, of zoning, in what is a historically biased approach, implicitly biased approach, and be able to say, I want to do this differently. 

DN: While that process might be biased, perhaps between the rich and poor, is it racism? 

EM: I’ve mentioned that I have a map from the University of Utah archives of Salt Lake City with the redlining over our city. ... That redlining practice is, of course, illegal now, but the results of that on the communities that they impacted is playing out even today. And if you look at that map, and then you look at the city today and you think about where some of the redlining lines are, we have not recovered. So I think historically, there has been, across the entire country, racism baked into how cities have developed, and I believe that’s being perpetuated today. If we aren’t intentionally correcting for it and providing people access to opportunities across the city, then we’re inherently perpetuating it.

The first 100 days in office and transportation

DN: What are your priorities, and what happens in the first 100 days of being mayor?

EM: In no particular order — Convening a conversation with the university and business community to set a vision for a tech ecosystem in Salt Lake City. We have tech businesses here, but we don’t have an ecosystem. We have six unicorn companies between Draper and Lehi — not a single one in Salt Lake City. Yet, we know that they share a lot of the values that Salt Lake City does around access to opportunities, diversity and even being able to live, work and play in the same area. I would begin that conversation in order to then bring our tools to the table and make that happen. Other cities around the country have done it. We don’t have to invent the wheel there. 

Something I want to stop doing immediately is returning impact fees to developers, who really should be paying for growth. Our administration currently has returned about $3.2 million back to developers who paid willingly to accommodate the growth that their development impacts on our utilities, our streets, our public safety. And this administration hasn’t updated our impact fee facility plan, even though the council gave them all the money they need to hire those contractors to make it happen. We’re still returning money. That stops immediately. 

Public transit: Salt Lake City taxpayers have implemented the first of three phases of our transit master plan. And in order to get those second and third phases built out, we can’t wait for our taxpayer dollars to be able to fund that. And the reason we can’t wait is an economic reason. The economy we’re building downtown — literally six high-rises coming up in the next two, three years. The billions of investment that other entities in this city have in that downtown core rely on how people can get in and out of the city. We’re going to be adding tens of thousands of workers and residents, and we cannot continue to rely on a primary single occupant vehicle transportation system. Our city needs to dramatically shift the way we move people, and in order to do that we’ve got to bring these partnerships to the table. 

Let me tell you about the big idea, which is that every ticket to a Salt Lake City event needs to be a transit pass, just the way the University of Utah does. If you live in Ogden or Spanish Fork and you’re going to gymnastics or basketball or a football game at the U., that ticket is your transit pass. Whether there’s a paper ticket or it’s online on your phone, UTA scans that thing and you can take FrontRunner, TRAX or the bus. When you think about the planners that it would take to do that here in Salt Lake City — the City and the County, which own and operate all the arts and culture venues, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Larry H. Miller Group and the state of Utah. They’ve got the Fairpark, but really they’ve got the bottom line of the economy to benefit from. That is not that many partners that it would take for us to continue the conversation of the scale we’ve never had in the state, to say how can we make everyone who thinks about coming to Salt Lake City, whether it’s for conference or the “Book of Mormon” at the Eccles, or anything in between, to think “I’m not going to drive, I’m going to take transit. The city pays for it, I don’t have to pay for parking.”

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Salt Lake City’s next big decision

DN: That works at the University of Utah because TRAX is convenient. Do you think you can get people on buses?

EM: Well, I think FrontRunner, TRAX and then bus. We also know that the functionality of great American cities today is not limited to those public transit options. It’s about green bike, it’s about scooters. And one of the reasons that economies thrive more with people taking transit as opposed to single occupant vehicles is because we’re engaging with other businesses and other opportunities as we go on the train. 

DN: That strategy requires consumers to say, “I’m willing to take twice as long to get to an event. Much quicker to drive.”

EM: If we’re talking about upping this kind of service level with UTA, that service is going to change. And those two additional phases of our transit master plan I talked about, they become viable implementations when we have this kind of investment partnership saying we’ve got to move people better. No city controls the housing market or the general economy in the city, but a totally appropriate place for a city to step in is with a transit master plan, which we just recently completed, that says, this is where people need to go, here’s the bus routes that we don’t have today or that we need to have more frequently. This is what we need in order for the system to work. 

It’s appropriate for the city to bring these partnerships together and say, you know, the housing market is going to do its thing, we’re going to try to massage affordability in. The economy is influenced by a myriad of other factors. We’re going to try to get the kind of businesses in here that help us. But transit? That is really appropriate place for us. 

DN: How will you pay for it? 

EM: Let’s talk about partnerships. Let’s not set our sights too short on saying how many tickets we sell and how much would we have to subsidize per ticket to UTA in order to do that. I think that that is too small a box for us as these big entities come together and say, especially when we know that only 14% of UTA’s budget is from the farebox. That’s relatively little.

DN: Do you want them to subsidize it? Are you willing to raise taxes for this vision?

EM: I’m willing to have that conversation with the community. And I think that Salt Lake City residents are not unique along the Wasatch Front in wanting to both participate in change and see that the institutions of our city are also participating in that change. I’m talking about bringing private dollars to help us implement another transit master plan for the sake of the economy and livability and air quality. But I’m also willing to talk, from however the city participates, with our residents about what that means for us. What is it going to cost us? Where are our priorities? 


DN: You mentioned scooters, which have become a real sore point with people who live downtown. What will you do with the constituents who are paying heavy rent or housing fees and who are coming out of those apartments and getting run down?

EM: Hopefully I will have dealt with that before the end of this calendar year, because the City Council is about to consider an ordinance that would end the pilot program phase of scooters in our city and make some changes to how we actually operate with them. We need better enforcement. We need any enforcement. Cities like Portland have been working with the scooter companies. ... They check the red light cameras that used to take pictures of us running red lights, that are focused on the sidewalks and can identify a scooter on the sidewalk and immediately charge the company, who then charges the customer. We’ve got to make the sidewalk safe for people, and in order to shift scooters into the streets with bikes and cars, we’re talking about infrastructure now.

DN: There are plenty of bike lanes downtown with wide streets, but people are still riding on the sidewalks.

EM: Have you ridden a bike through downtown? I ride a bike, and it is scary. There are potholes and major crags, and when I ride my bike over it, I can handle it with a wheel that big. But when I ride a scooter over in the street, it’s no wonder people have major accidents. Our infrastructure is not conducive to feeling like I can safely ride a scooter with a four-inch wheel over that pothole.

DN: But it’s not potholes that have people on the sidewalk.

EM: It’s the lack of enforcement and consequences.

DN: Why isn’t the police department doing something about it?

EM: The administration hasn’t directed them to.

DN: And you disagree with that?

EM: I do. I think that the administration recognizes that it’s not working, and that’s why they brought this ordinance before us that proposes some changes. 

Can I bring up one more point? You can imagine designating, on the street, an on-street parking space per block that is painted a certain color that is scooter parking, just to get them off the sidewalks. I think ADA accessibility is a real issue too for pedestrians, having scooters blocking ways or covering access to doors. So there’s a lot of creative approaches, it isn’t just enforcement on the sidewalks. It is partially about the safety of even riding in the streets, but it’s how we accommodate them in our infrastructure. We haven’t had a transportation master plan in two decades. Your transit master plan says where we should put buses and how we will use those, but a transportation master plan of over 20 years of age doesn’t contemplate how scooters fit into our system. We need to start work on a transportation master plan.

We need to start work on a transportation master plan.

Live, work, play

DN: One could reasonably argue the difficulty in getting tech companies to move up here is because families don’t want to live up here, for myriad reasons. Families are the lifeblood of a community. How do you retain those families and make the city truly a place where a young couple can decide to put down roots to live, work and play in the same place?

EM: Historically, Salt Lake City has been much as it is today, which is not family centric. The Ken C. Gardner Policy Institute presents the demographics of Salt Lake City to us every year, and we just had that presentation last Tuesday. And it’s fascinating when you look at the age on the Y axis and the population density on the X, that we are this sort belly-shaped city, where we have a lot of people in their 20s. Part of that is universities. ... It’s been that way for a very long time. 

But back to housing and the way that we’re growing housing. We build 4,400 units a year according to the last report that I saw on housing, and the next closest city, South Jordan, was around 1,600 units. The majority of units we’re building are studios and one bedrooms. Very few two bedrooms, and almost never three or four bedrooms. And so the cost of existing housing for more than two bedrooms goes way up because of lack of availability. I’ve been working since I was a new council member six years ago with Councilwoman Lisa Adams — she and I are both mothers, both with three or more kids, and both need more than two bedrooms in the house. We started this conversation back when we were commencing our housing plan for the city to say we have to prioritize families in the city, we really want to talk about having diversity of population, diversity of incomes. We’ve got to include families in that conversation. It isn’t just cultural, racial, economic, it’s also about family size too. 

In many ways it goes back to unpacking the regulations around zoning, and how is our zoning and our planning focused on multifamily units without any incentives for larger size units? … We’re continuing to invest in singles or couples, maybe one child. 

I have three kids and they range from 13 to 3, they’re all in public school, and aftercare and summer programming is really hard to come by in high quality, and it’s expensive. Salt Lake City has had Youth City for a long time — it’s a subsidized, high quality afterschool program that exists in five areas of the community — none of it in the schools. One is in Liberty Park. All of them are at capacity, huge waiting lists, hundreds of families waiting to get in. At the same time, the school district is experiencing a pretty dramatic decline, different from every other school district in the state — an 8,000 student projected decline in the coming few years. They’re talking about closure of three schools. They have literally spaces built for children that are not being used. We have a huge waiting list for after-school and summer programming — I would also argue pre-K programming. Salt Lake City runs the programming, they have the space. There is a natural conversation that I’ve already begun as a councilwoman, where the city and school district can come together and elevate the opportunities for families to afford living in the city. They have quality places for their kids to be, and I think it actually affects both our bottom lines. The school district doesn’t want to close schools, we don’t want that impact on the community. The morale that extracts from the community when you close a school is great. But the whole city benefits when we have more educated students and population here. 

How do we do it? One of the ways that I am proposing we explore is this: The city and the school district are the tax amenities. We are redevelopment agency partners when we execute a development projects, as we are just about to finalize on the Nine Line — 9th South and State Street. We consider committing future tax increment to this program, to supporting families in Salt Lake City, making it easier for families to stay in place. When their housing is compromised, kids are pulled from school to school to school. That mobility rate of students dramatically affects their ability to graduate and it affects their future success. When we support families being able to raise their families in place and stay in Salt Lake City, you can make the case economically, from a humanitarian perspective — education — it checks all the boxes. There’s some real ways for us to include access for families.

Provided by Erin Mendenhall

Working with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

DN: Former Mayor Rocky Anderson brought religion into the race. Can you describe what your relationship would be like with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

EM: When I first jumped into the campaign, being eighth in, I reached out to Marty Stephens (the church’s director of government and community relations) and asked for some time with him. We sat down and he said, “Well, what do you hope to get from this meeting? What’s your intention here?” And I said, we’ve met as City Council and church leadership over issues that we needed to address over the years. But I’m here to begin a relationship of trust, forthcoming conversation and open communication as hopefully our city’s next mayor. 

So I’ve had the privilege of following up with those conversations at a bigger level with the communications team. We talked about everything from how do we make it better for families here in the city to what could the church do around air quality and environmental issues, to the ticket conversation I brought to you a moment ago. But really, the most encouraging takeaway is that I understand why the church, in humility, doesn’t take credit for the myriad things it does in this community and, of course, throughout the state and the world. And I understand that, but I think that the opportunity for us to proactively support this community and investment — I don’t necessarily mean financial investment — but working together proactively, we’ve put out fires, like siting the women’s homeless resource center on 7th South. It was an incredibly generous gesture that they made to sell that property. And they took very little credit for it. But what if we worked together proactively? Our capacity is incredible. And they, frankly, have billions invested in the future of the city. They are a rightful stakeholder and a wonderful stakeholder. 

I have seen, in my six years in City Hall, the little things and the big things that that relationship has brought to benefit our city. I think that we can do more proactively together. We share a lot of value. So I’ve worked hard to cultivate an open relationship and communication about where we go together. We both want Salt Lake City to succeed, this is our community together. How do we work together?

Concerns with infrastructure

DN: On infrastructure, are you focusing more on the streets and biking, or is there additional infrastructure concerns?

EM: Recognizing, as I said a minute ago, that we haven’t had a new transportation plan for decades, is a critical improvement we need to make so that we know as we invest today that it’s good into the future too, that it fits into the future needs of the city. Without a plan, we can’t be sure that we’re making the best investments. Last year as a council, we finally undertook an infrastructure conversation, and it was called Funding our Future. Ultimately, what it resulted in was a 0.5% sales tax increase. ... And when we asked the residents, do you want us to raise this tax? And if you do, what do you want us to spend it on? It was clearly infrastructure, greater public safety, more patrol officers, affordable housing and circulator buses. 

That first phase that I mentioned that we implemented, that ongoing revenue is coming from that. On streets, we’ve doubled our maintenance crews. If you think about the health of the streets as a spectrum of the worst that needs to be torn out to a brand new fresh street, when we take care of streets at that healthier end, it’s exponentially more affordable for us and the investment, just like your health, is worth it. We doubled the amount of lanes from 70 to about 140. And this year, you can thank all of that construction interruption because if we wanted it, we asked for it. So we’re maintaining twice as many. 

Now if you’re at the worst end of the spectrum, the other part of the Funding our Future conversation was a general obligation bond that we put on the ballot last November. It was overwhelmingly approved and it bonded $87 million for repair of some of our worst roads. But the reality is, because 64% of our streets are in poor to failing condition, that this is just biting at the edges and we still have a long road ahead of funding in order to actually get the majority of our roads into fair condition. 

So how do we solve that? Stop giving back impact fees right way. We need to start aggressively going after federal grants, as we did with previous administrations. But basically, we’re not using the tools that we have that we’re already paying for, to have people advocating for our grants in Washington, D.C., and to make sure we get tens of millions of dollars that we’re eligible for. Going after county transportation dollars that the County Council approved last year after the City Council here said yes. And growing our tax base is the other way.

We can’t afford to make our residents pay for all the needs of the capital city because we’re unaware of the other levers we have to pull.

What are the industries we’re bringing in? I think the highest-paid, fastest-growing industry in the state, the tech sector, should have more presence here. But there’s other ways for us to lessen the burden on our residents as we get to the big section here of our infrastructure that we haven’t yet funded. It’s taken six years to be able to put all these tools in my toolbox. And I don’t think we have time to wait for a mayor who’s gotta go through a couple of years of learning and bring in an administration that doesn’t know the city’s business. I’ve watched us lose a lot of opportunities over the years, and I’ve watched us throw rocks at other opportunities. We can’t afford to do it anymore. And we can’t afford to make our residents pay for all the needs of the capital city because we’re unaware of the other levers we have to pull.

Mental health

DN: Regarding mental health, what are the gaps on the city level that can be filled and what can be done there to get more resources? We have a shortage of professionals. A lot of people affected by that are university students. What can be done by the city to help them?

EM: There is a problem. And about two years ago, the Council committed $650,000 through the County to make available more detox beds and addiction services. And during this budget cycle this year we had to take that money back because there were not enough beds, there were not enough service providers for the County to be able to realize the $650,000 we offered up. The City does not, as you know, run health services like at the county level. I think one of the things that we can do here that is really, really critical but may not seem like one of the answers is our census next year. It is critically important that we get an accurate count of Salt Lake City residents. That’s why we funded a full-time position, $80,000 for census coordinator. This isn’t the person who goes out and knocks on the doors, this is the person who works with the census team to make sure that the way they’re getting into neighborhoods and to people’s front doors is actually accurately representing and getting to the diversity of population. 

Diverse populations, marginalized demographics don’t necessarily want to be counted next year. And then we’re talking about a federal conversation, too. … Obviously, I think I’ve shown the political will and the financial will on behalf of the city to partner with the county and the state when we need to to bring additional services online, because as the center of service provision for the state, we definitely have a disproportionate burden on our population here. But for the sake of humanity, too, we want to take care of people. We don’t want people to go without access to services.