Opinion: No bitterness or anger from this Salt Lake City mayor

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall had every reason to be angry at state lawmakers in her State of the City address Tuesday, but she exhibited none of it

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall could have been excused Tuesday night for engaging a tone of bitterness against state lawmakers during her annual State of the City address. After all, they had practically singled her out in legislation that now forbids any mayor from declaring a “state of emergency in response to an epidemic, a pandemic or another public health emergency.”

But, to her credit, she did not.

The Legislature’s action — in a joint resolution the governor could neither sign nor veto — erased the city’s mask mandate and kept Mendenhall from doing what she felt was needed to protect the people of her city in a pandemic. 

Again, she didn’t lash out.

She did address the pandemic, but with a tone of gratitude for overworked health care workers and with a hopeful plea to people to voluntarily wear masks and get vaccinated against COVID-19. The mask mandates, she said, were put in place “because that’s what the science called for.”

Then she looked forward.

“Our government is shifting from looking at COVID as an acute crisis to treating it as a chronic condition, not because the virus is any less deadly to the unvaccinated and immunocompromised, and not because our ICUs are any less crowded, but the bitter reality is that a sudden, miraculous end to this pandemic is not coming, and frankly, the city government is running out of ways to slow the spread of the virus,” she said, adding that solutions have to come from the people.

“We will continue to do what we can and what our health experts advise — within the parameters state law allows — but we also have to acknowledge that personal responsibility is the most powerful tool remaining in our arsenal. The government can’t end this on its own. We need you.”

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It has become almost customary these days to engage in sarcasm, anger and bitterness in public office. We’re glad Mendenhall has consistently chosen a different approach. Her speech made lawmakers, who regularly give lip service to the importance of governments that are closest to the people, look small.

Lawmakers erased more than just the city’s mask ordinance. They erased similar ordinances approved by leaders in Salt Lake and Summit counties, as well. In a separate bill, HB183, they ended the “test to stay” program for public schools (unless state leaders determine it is needed again) and made it almost impossible for a school to shift temporarily to online learning. If the governor signs this bill, a school board would need to petition the governor, the speaker of the House, the Senate president and the state superintendent of education for permission to temporarily move to online learning if a pandemic passes a certain threshold.

It’s hard to see how a school board could be nimble enough, under those rules, to react to any health crisis.

Salt Lake mayors, who tend to be Democrats (the job is officially nonpartisan) are used to doing battle with state lawmakers, who tend to be Republicans. In her speech, Mendenhall highlighted another frustration: the city’s struggle with homelessness. 

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For a brief moment, four years ago, state leaders acknowledged it was unfair for the city to shoulder a disproportionate burden of treating the homeless, when it really was a statewide problem. 

Operation Rio Grande, which targeted the area around the city’s main shelter at the time and ended with the construction of new shelters, or “resource centers,” included police and politicians from several cities. 

On Tuesday, the mayor again called on the state to help, as it must. But she did it without accusation, simply pointing a direction forward.

The key to civility, and to effective solutions, lies in how people approach their differences, and how they work to overcome problems. On Tuesday, Mendenhall showed the way, and we applaud that.

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