SALT LAKE CITY — As Salt Lake City Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall has waited for her swearing-in ceremony slated for Monday, she’s likened it to sitting on an airplane.

“It’s felt like we’ve been taxiing on the tarmac for a couple months,” she said.

But when her transition committee finalized its work one week before inauguration, Mendenhall said she heard the “engines fire up.”

“We’re about to take off,” she said. “I’m really excited.”

So once the Mendenhall administration lifts off, where will it go? Mendenhall says it’s a journey she’s taking with all Salt Lake City residents — turbulence and all — and she promises to do everything she can to not leave anyone behind.

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“Part of the reason I ran for office for mayor is that I love this city. I have experience that showed me a path to get to a better place for our city, and I am convinced that we can do it,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News, days away from her inauguration ceremony, slated for noon Monday on the steps of City Hall.

“The better path, that future, we’re going to actually make it together,” she said. “So I don’t want to say I hold the entire vision because the community is bringing that vision to us every day.”

Yet what the mayor-elect hopes for is not just a “better” city but a “thriving” city. One that unites diverse communities — from the east and west sides, from those of different faiths and beliefs, from state leaders to city leaders — to find solutions on everything from housing, to homelessness, to air quality, to public transportation, to even the state-versus-city court battle over the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority.

“‘Thriving’ looks like diversity. It looks like vibrancy. It looks like businesses in every business space,” Mendenhall said. “It looks like people walking at night safely. ... But that overall it’s the feeling that Salt Lake City is a unique place, and that we’re in this together.

“Every one of their experiences matter to where we’re going,” she said.

What Mendenhall said she hopes for at the conclusion of her inauguration is that people walk away feeling like they’re headed toward a future “with unlimited possibilities.”

Mendenhall discussed her overarching vision and hopes for her next four years as mayor in an interview with the Deseret News as she commuted Friday from her 9th and 9th neighborhood to City Hall, first hopping on a Utah Transit Authority bus before transferring to a UTA TRAX train near the University of Utah that took her on the final stretch to City Hall.

A passionate air quality activist, Mendenhall said she takes public transit or rides her bike when she’s not carpooling kids to school in her electric Nissan Leaf.

On the campaign trail, Mendenhall pitched herself as a data-driven policy wonk with a personal passion for air quality and environmental work and a genuine love for people. She was a teenager when her father died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a difficult life event she said has shaped her passion for the “intersection of science and policy” and how policy decisions can impact people’s lives in real ways, including their health.

When Mendenhall hopped off the bus Friday, a pin symbolizing her passion for environmental policy popped off her coat. She quickly retrieved it, pinning it carefully back in place. The silver pin bears the likeness of Rachel Carson, the author of the environmental classic book “Silent Spring” that sparked an environmental movement. Mendenhall called her the “mother of environmental justice,” and among many figures who have inspired her.

Mendenhall has pledged that air quality will be the lens through which she views all issues. And as she takes her seat in the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, she’s prepared to go beyond the “low hanging fruit” Salt Lake City has already bitten off for air quality initiatives and to reach for “systematic” changes to work toward a cleaner city.

“I’m ready for that,” she said.

Bracing for challenge

Mendenhall, come Monday, will take the oath of office to succeed Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who didn’t run for reelection and steps away with mixed reviews after four years of tough decisions, controversial issues, and conflict with the Salt Lake City Council and state leaders.

Mendenhall will inherit many of those tough issues, including the city, county and state’s evolving homeless system and the contentious lawsuit over the Utah Inland Port Authority.

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As mayor of Utah’s capital — a position that’s accountable for everything from filling potholes to representing Salt Lake City on national levels — Mendenhall will navigate many competing interests of her constituents, and it’s for that reason she knows criticism is inevitable.

“It always comes. It’s always there,” she said, laughing, though acknowledging it will likely hit harder as mayor compared to her time as a councilwoman.

“But that’s not new to me or any woman in politics,” she said, pointing to a recent national study that found female public officials are more than twice as likely as male mayors to experience psychological abuse, especially on social media.

Even though her work is “personally driven,” Mendenhall said she tries hard every day to not take the work personally. It boils down to remembering “the job is to make the best choice for Salt Lake City,” she said. “Not just for a few constituents, but the whole.”

That means she will likely end up having to make tough choices. But that’s also not new to her.

One of the first times Mendenhall said she felt truly torn between interests was when the city was facing outrage over the death of Jerry, a carriage horse that collapsed in the middle of the street and died of colic. In 2014, the City Council voted to ban horse-drawn carriages on city streets.

“We were hearing from veterinarians, equestrians, animal activists and tourists, people who said they’d never come back to Salt Lake City again,” Mendenhall recalled. “Everyone was passionate about it. That was a really hard vote.”

Years later, Mendenhall was there when the City Council and Biskupski announced controversial homeless resource center sites, some of which were scrapped for a new plan after outrage from neighborhoods. Then came the state’s creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority — and negotiations with state leaders that Mendenhall entered after Biskupski walked away.

Heading into the next legislative session less than a month after she takes office, Mendenhall said she will be quickly evaluating the city’s legislative and legal strategies, which will hinge on the decision that has not yet been handed down by a judge.

Salt Lake City has historically had a politically contentious relationship with state leaders — long seen as an island of blue in a conservative red sea. Salt Lake City is also an area of many beliefs, being the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as a city of cultural diversity.

But boiling down Salt Lake City’s identity to that of a clash of church members and nonmembers is an “inaccurate” depiction of “who we are,” Mendenhall said in a Deseret News and KSL editorial boards meeting Friday. And she hopes to “rebrand” the city to help tell a story of “who we really are” — a city that attracts people from a “full spectrum of experiences.”

“I don’t think it’s oil and water,” she said. “I think you’ve got to shake the salad dressing up.”

Mendenhall said there will naturally be “differences of opinion,” but in reality “Salt Lake City isn’t an island,” and rather, as a capital city, it “can’t afford to pick fights in everything that we do” with state leaders.

“There’s a strategy to knowing when,” she said. “The fundamental difference has something to do with Salt Lake City leading. We generally do lead our own path, and if we waited for partnerships with the state to be able to address air quality, affordable housing, or whatever the issue is, we would still be waiting for many of those things to happen. So we need to be able to lead on our own, but it isn’t always in spite of the state. It should be in partnership with the state and the county and the 247 cities and towns.”

So Mendenhall has pledged to be a bridge builder that won’t “storm out of meetings.” She pledged to listen, be accessible, and have “functional relationships where conversations can flow, disagreements can happen, and respect can pervade.”

As she sat down in the dimly-lit conference room her team has been working from as their transition office, Mendenhall said there’s a “big opportunity” within Salt Lake City to “build a culture in this city with our residents and businesses and philanthropic, universities, and other partners that we are in this together.”

“That if we disagree today on an issue, I’m going to be here tomorrow to work with you,” Mendenhall said. “And I want to hear from you. And your good is my good. We need to keep at it together for the sake of a potential thriving city.”

“A cultural shift takes time,” she added. “And I keep saying I’ll crack a few eggs as we cook this omelette up, but we’ve got to come back together. My heart is in this.”

100-day plan in the works

A week before her oath of office, Mendenhall excitedly reviewed a trove of recommendations her transition committee compiled in a 131-page document, outlining hundreds of proposals for Mendenhall to consider for her first 100-day, 500-day or even multi-year plans.

Among those recommendations, which Mendenhall is still reviewing before she sets her 100-day plan, are micro-level recommendations. Many are wonky. Some bold.

For example, some recommendations include city ordinances to ban gas powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers and snow blowers, or two-stroke engines in general. Another recommendation related to city land use suggested limiting parking requirements at developments, removing existing parking, supporting parking fees, and elevating bike and pedestrian friendly design in place of more parking.

That’s just a few.

Also, while Mendenhall has campaigned on her pledge to negotiate with Rocky Mountain Power to move up the city’s net-100% clean energy goal by 2023, one recommendation from her transition team was to work toward a “municipal-owned renewable power company,” stating “Rocky Mountain Power does not share the same goals or timeline as the residents of Salt Lake City when it comes to 100% renewable.”

Asked about those recommendations, Mendenhall said the proposals and everything else in her transition documents are all on the table — but they’re not “marching orders,” but rather a “jumping off point” for conversations with the “frontline employees” to determine what the Mendenhall administration will work over the next four years.

As for a municipal-owned power company? Mendenhall said that’s a “last resort,” and there’s plenty to discuss with Rocky Mountain Power before turning to that last resort. Starting that negotiation timeline, she said, is among the long list of items she hopes to tackle on Monday.

“I’m excited to start the negotiations with Rocky Mountain Power,” she said. “There’s much conversation to be had.”

Though there’s a wealth of ideas outlined in Mendenhall’s transition recommendations, Mendenhall is taking her first month in office to develop a 100-day plan. She’s also noted many of those priorities will require funding (for which the mayor’s budget proposal is due in May), so she’ll begin diving in to formulate those specific priorities toward the beginning of February.

“It would be premature for me to say, before I’m even in office, what and when we’re capable of executing on that long list of ideas,” Mendenhall said.

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But in a more general sense, Mendenhall said several “emerging themes” have risen from her work with her transition committee. Those include ways to better connect people in communities through a more accessible and open city hall, to develop a city with “environmental resilience” that uses data and innovative thinking to elevate Salt Lake City’s sustainable policies, and find ways the city can “harness growth for the good of the people,” whether it be by developing a tech ecosystem to bring high-paying jobs and/or by partnering with those in the private sector who share affordable housing and sustainability goals.

Overall, Mendenhall said Salt Lake City residents can expect a “continuous reimagining” throughout her administration of how the city can improve its ordinances, zoning, permitting — all of its processes — to increase residents’ access to city government.

As for her style? Mendenhall said she aims to be an accessible mayor.

“Accessibility is sort of a core piece of me as a person, whether I’m your next-door neighbor or a mom at the preschool,” she said. “I love people. That’s why I do this work.”

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