Salt Lake City’s two mayoral hopefuls agree on many things, but in a debate Monday night they clashed over issues facing the city, such as the planned inland port and how the city serves its west-side residents.
Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce and Fox13’s Ben Winslow, who moderated the debate, encouraged the respective candidates, state Sen. Luz Escamilla and Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, to ask each other questions about various topics and their own plans to tackle them.
This led to a few tense exchanges between the rival Democrats, including on the inland port, a controversial import-export hub in the planning stages near the airport in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.
At one point, Escamilla asked Mendenhall why the city council rezoned land in the port’s boundaries to accommodate development before the inland port was created by the state Legislature in spring 2018.
Mendenhall said the question showed a “fundamental lack of understanding of how our city government works.” She added that rezoning was just one way the city tried to maintain control over lands within the inland port’s boundary before the state delegated control of more than 16,000 acres to the Inland Port Authority Board.
But Escamilla pressed Mendenhall on the question, forcing the councilwoman to admit that the city was planning for an inland port before the state created the current project.
A frustrated Mendenhall said private developers wanted an inland port and the city was forced to either play along or be steamrolled by the Legislature.
“The city was working with private developers who were planning an inland port,” Mendenhall said. “That’s what the master plan — that’s been through all of the normal public processes — has always talked about. This is not news.”
Another testy exchange came after the candidates were asked about growth downtown. Escamilla, who is the first west-side mayoral candidate in two decades to appear on the general election ballot, pointed out that many residents west of Interstate-15 haven't benefitted from economic growth and don’t feel adequately served by the city.
“Nothing has happened and the people on the west side don’t feel like anything has been done by the city,” said Escamilla, who lives on the west side and represents the area in the Utah Senate. “We have to be intentional in addressing disparities on the westside.”
“It’s not enough to just say, ‘We have to do something different,’” Mendenhall said, touting accomplishments from the city’s Westside Master Plan and expanded bus routes reaching the area — though Escamilla said she disagreed.
For example, she said, westside residents have been waiting two years for the city to decide whether to put a public market at the Utah State Fairpark.
“I’m ready to take action for a change, Councilwoman, on the west side,” Escamilla said near the end of a lengthy exchange on the subject.
“I would love to hear how you’re actually going to do it,” Mendenhall replied.
During the hour-long debate at the downtown public library, candidates also touched on homelessness, including concerns that three new homeless resource centers will reach capacity before the first snowfall. The women’s shelter — the first to open earlier this year — is already full, The Tribune reported Monday.
Mendenhall said she does not support closing the Road Home shelter until there is a system in place to ensure enough emergency housing for residents on the streets during winter.
Escamilla, citing a state audit which found drug use and other issues at the shelter, said it should close as planned and that the city should work to move families and women into more stable housing.
Municipal election ballots will arrive in Salt Lake County mailboxes this week. The general election is Nov. 5.