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Mendenhall reflects on weathering ‘rager’ first year as Salt Lake City’s mayor

With a pandemic, social uprising, homelessness, earthquakes and hurricane-force winds, Erin Mendenhall’s first year as mayor was a trial by fire

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall poses for a photograph near 900 West and Folsom Avenue in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall poses for a photograph near 900 West and Folsom Avenue in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Looking back on the cyclonic year that was 2020, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at first compared it to a grueling obstacle course from the TV show “American Ninja Warrior.”

“Actually that’s not a fair comparison,” Mendenhall said, noting that “the ninjas know what they’re about to run when they start it.”

She laughed, embarrassed to admit she watches the show with her 4-year-old daughter. Perhaps that would be a more fitting analogy, she said, if she were to attempt the course “blindfolded,” unable to see the next obstacle in front of her.

A better analogy, she said, would be river rafting on whitewater rapids, with only two oars — which she said represent her “core guiding principles” such as “my love of City Hall, my love of people, my incessant curiosity and my love of this work” — to help guide her around rocks and logs, sometimes hidden beneath the white froth of a water level that could vary by the day.

“The river — this year — has been a rager,” Mendenhall said. “It’s one for the books.”

The close of 2020 marks the end of Mendenhall’s first year in office as mayor of Utah’s capital city.

“What a year,” she said.

In the past 12 months since she was sworn in, the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped Utah as it has the rest of the world. And just days after everything changed in Utah when the state shut down for the virus in March, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake rattled the entire Wasatch Front, shaking awake Utahns already frazzled by the pandemic.

Then on May 25, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, setting off a nationwide wave of civil unrest and protests demanding police reform and an end to centuries of systematic racism — including near-daily protests across Salt Lake City that persisted for months.

Then on Sept. 8, hurricane-force winds ripped up an estimated 3,000 public and private trees in Salt Lake City in a generational storm that wreaked havoc in northern Utah, wiping out electricity to nearly 200,000 Utahns, some left without power for days.

In the span of 12 months, Mendenhall has seen more crises hit Utah’s capital than one mayor has seen probably ever. As she discussed each of these crises in an end-of-year interview with the Deseret News, she took every opportunity she could to laud the work of city employees — from those who cleaned up after the windstorm to those who were up at dawn assessing the damage from the earthquake — to keeping the city afloat.

Through it all, Mendenhall has aimed to lead with a steady hand and a calm tenor — a demeanor she’s appeared to maintain throughout each crisis. That’s even despite the increased public vitriol amid a historically polarized presidential election — and despite death threats that led Police Chief Mike Brown to recommend Mendenhall and her family leave town for their own safety as protests over the shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal reached a boiling point.

When asked what’s been her most difficult challenge of 2020, Mendenhall said one issue has left Salt Lake City feeling particularly alone:

A homeless man bundles up near a fire on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Tuesday published a report identifying major problems within the state’s current homeless governance structure.
A homeless man bundles up near a fire on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Homelessness

“The reason it’s the most difficult issue in a lot of ways is that this is not a Salt Lake City issue, this is a statewide issue that Salt Lake City has been handed on an annual basis, without resources but with the political will in my heart to do what we need to do to make sure people are sheltered and that our public spaces are safe for everyone,” Mendenhall said.

“The other challenges — the pandemic, earthquakes, windstorm, even the social unrest and the uprising that’s happened — we either have most of the tools we need or the willing partnership with the county and the state as we do with COVID,” she said.

“Homelessness is far less defined and far less participatory at other levels and even other cities.”

Throughout the year — from the first days of Mendenhall’s administration, when city officials scrambled to set up the Sugar House temporary shelter — homelessness continues to be a problem, with on-street camping persisting through the summer and into the winter. Despite weeks of efforts to provide targeted social services and a gentle approach to street cleanups, tents continue to line Salt Lake City streets.

With promises to the east-side neighborhood that the Sugar House shelter would be temporary, Mendenhall called on other cities to help carry the burden of homelessness as a statewide problem.

This year, as Salt Lake County partners struggled to find more winter overflow shelter space amid COVID-19 in the form of hotel rooms, the mayor of Midvale — a city that hosts the 300-bed Road Home family shelter — rejected the plan to use a hotel in his city. Weeks later, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini agreed to a plan to use a senior living facility for winter overflow.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announces the opening of a new temporary, emergency overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness during a press conference at the Salt Lake City County building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announces the opening of a new temporary, emergency overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness during a press conference at the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

This month, Salt Lake City leaders, including Mendenhall, sited a second winter homeless overflow center in their city, at the Airport Inn Hotel, expressing frustration that they must again step in to address the needs of the homeless community.

“We have to do better,” Mendenhall said.

She’s hoping for a better approach from the state down, expecting the issue to be tackled in the upcoming 2020 legislative session. She said she has “confidence in a better system” recommended by a recent University of Utah report, which proposed the state reform its current homeless governance model into a Utah Homeless Council headed by a chief homeless officer, meant to increase accountability and streamline leadership.

As Mendenhall enters her second year in office, there still isn’t a clear answer for camping — what many homeless individuals resort to for a range of reasons, whether that’s because they’re wary of COVID-19 inside shelter settings, or they may not be ready or willing to enter mental health or drug treatment.

Mendenhall has expressed a desire to build a managed tiny home community with wraparound services, modeled after a Texas community called Community First! Village the Deseret News profiled last month. But that proposal hasn’t yet taken shape, with the city needing first private partners and a public planning process — no short-term solution. Even though camping is already happening on Salt Lake City streets, Mendenhall is opposed to establishing a sanctioned camping area, calling it a “genie” that can’t be “put back in the bottle,” and one that doesn’t give the homeless population the “dignity” and services they need to get out of homelessness.

In the meantime, city and county leaders continue to lean on funding for hotel spaces for winter overflow. And camp cleanups that anger campers and protesters persist.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall talks with Police Chief Mike Brown after speaking at a press conference about changes to the city’s police policies — including de-escalation efforts, use of force, body cameras and consent to search — during a press conference outside of the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall talks with Police Chief Mike Brown after speaking at a press conference about changes to the city’s police policies — including de-escalation efforts, use of force, body cameras and consent to search — during a press conference outside of the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Civil unrest

Efforts to address police reform came to Mendenhall’s mind when she was asked what was a shortfall or frustration of hers as she looks back on 2020.

“I believe Salt Lake City’s police department is the best police department in the nation, and that’s not because we don’t make mistakes,” she said. “It’s because when we do, we demand transparency and accountability, and we want to make the improvements that we must for our officers’ sake and our public’s sake.”

Asked if she believes Salt Lake City has addressed police reform adequately this year, Mendenhall said, “We’ve done all the reforms we can and should do at this point” and she has “confidence in the process” that the city’s new Commission on Racial Equity in Policing is putting itself through to inform policy changes, with input from law enforcement and the community.

Change, Mendenhall said, “should be ongoing.”

“The work of that continual evaluation and reevaluation and examination of the context of new cases and the circumstances through that lens of equity and justice should be a permanent operation in Salt Lake City and cities across the country,” she said.

In addition to the creation of the commission, the Salt Lake City Council placed budgetary controls on $5.3 million of the Salt Lake City Police Department’s $84 million budget — a mild move in the face of an army of protesters demanding they “defund” the police.

In August, Mendenhall unveiled police policy updates that she said will make the city’s police department “the most well-trained and progressive police department in the country.” Those updates include changes to the city’s use-of-force protocol, how police conduct search and seizures, and how the department will discipline officers who either fail to activate or intentionally deactivate their body cameras.

Mendenhall and Brown also suspended and censured the police department’s K-9 apprehension program, citing a “pattern of abuse of power” found during a review of dozens of K-9 bites in past years. The mayor and chief said they weren’t aware of concerning footage showing an officer ordering a police dog to bite the leg of a kneeling Black man, Jeffrey Ryans, who had his hands in the air until it surfaced in the media. The officer involved, Nickolas John Pearce, was placed on administrative leave. Pearce has since been charged with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony.

She called the concerns around the K-9 unit a “tragedy,” but one that shows Salt Lake City leaders are willing to hold officers accountable. “That’s the kind of integrity that our great officers and our public deserves from their capital city police department,” she said.

One of Mendenhall’s biggest critics this year is the Salt Lake Police Association, a union that pushed back on Mendenhall’s police policy reforms, calling the changes “superfluous” and accusing the mayor of disparaging city employees.

The days following Floyd’s killing were “really rough” for Salt Lake City as the social uprising washed over the country, Mendenhall said. In total, city officials tallied more than 200 protests and organized events for which Salt Lake police provided a “bubble of traffic protection,” she said.

“I was cognizant then and I am continuously growing my awareness that that turmoil we experienced as a community is really nothing compared to the four centuries of injustice that people of color in Utah and across our country have experienced every day of their lives for generations,” Mendenhall said. “Bridging that for much of the community has been one of the great challenges of this year.”

Personal impact

It was amid that civil unrest Mendenhall said she received “death threats” that prompted her and her family to spend several days out of the city in an undisclosed location on advice of law enforcement. And throughout her term, Mendenhall has received personal attacks — some with sexist language — on social media, nothing new to female elected leaders.

Mendenhall said she got a taste of public vitriol when she was on the City Council, when city officials along with former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski attempted to site four new homeless resource centers in the city.

“But this year was exceptional,” Mendenhall said, explaining that she’s learned to internally filter comments that lack substance and consist of only personal attacks.

“I don’t know any individual’s personal experiences, but I do know that we are complex beings and as a country, as a community, we are unpacking centuries of injustice and we are suffering through a pandemic that has had 100 impacts on every person’s life,” she said. “This is the reality that we exist in.”

Mendenhall said her role is to “listen” and “do my best” to make changes for the city. But in the process, “I don’t need to take it all into my heart as personal ... even when they are whittled to cut that way, and I learned that a long time ago. That’s a practice that I’ve been working on far longer than I’ve been mayor.”

Mendenhall aims to practice what she preached along the campaign trail last year to her young campaign volunteers: Be kind. Especially as things got uglier closer to Election Day. Now, with the political climate uglier than ever, Mendenhall continues to hang on to that philosophy.

“None of us, anywhere in the city can afford to pick up everything that is flung at us and take it into our hearts and still function well,” she said.

She emphasized that the “love” and kindness she’s received from Salt Lake City residents have far outweighed the vitriol — at least “it does in my head,” she said, smiling.

As a bright spot amid 2020’s chaos, Mendenhall said the pandemic brought at least one plus for her, personally: more time with her family.

“In 2019, as most of that year was consumed campaigning, I saw the least of the family I’ve ever seen,” Mendenhall said. “I have needed and relished all of this time we’ve been able to spend together this year.”

She said she’s especially grateful to have a home of solace even when there’s been absolute “turmoil” in the outside world.

“Like a lot of people, I feel very aware of my own privilege that my family is healthy and we are safe and we are together. So it’s been a salve to be around my family this year,” she said, calling herself an “introvert.”

Another bright spot — and one that ties directly into one of her biggest initiatives, air quality — is the impact widespread teleworking has had on vehicle emissions and the Salt Lake Valley’s air quality. Pre-pandemic, many imagined such a change would take years, but around the world people pulled it off in a matter of days, she said.

And Mendenhall said she’s heard from a majority of employees who want to continue working in a “hybrid” format, working from home and in the office as circumstances dictate.

With the COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, Mendenhall said the “new normal” for Salt Lake City will likely entail that “hybrid” format, giving employees more flexibility and time with their families.

Heading into next year, Mendenhall said it’s “hard not to be optimistic.”

“You can’t really appreciate the light until you’ve been in the darkness,” she said. “This has been a hard year — a year full of loss and tragedy and necessary reckoning. ... I think it’s made our people tired but resolved.”

Mendenhall said Salt Lake City residents have “learned a lot from each other” this year as “we’ve opened our hearts in bigger ways.”

“So no matter what swarm of locusts or additional earthquakes or floods — who knows —come next,” Mendenhall said, smiling. “Our intentions are going in the right direction. And we are making some new and great strides toward the city we must become.”

Correction: In an earlier version, the date George Floyd was killed was misstated as May 30 instead of May 25.