Salt Lake City leaders — minus Mayor Jackie Biskupski — met Thursday afternoon with Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders in continuing negotiations over a planned land-based shipping hub in the northwest corner of the city.
The mayor’s absence is the latest sign of trouble for the project, which has faced controversy from the beginning. In a July 11 letter to the City Council, Biskupski said she is no longer participating in negotiations over the 20,000-plus acre inland port and its governing board. In explaining her decision, the mayor cited “a high level of distrust among residents” and “a continuing lack of transparency” in discussions.
Despite Biskupski’s exit from the talks, councilmembers Erin Mendenhall, James Rogers and Charlie Luke met for more than two hours in the governor’s office to discuss continuing concerns over the planned inland port and a potential special legislative session.
“I feel like our issues are being heard” by state leaders, said Rogers, who represents the council district where the inland port is slated to be developed. “Whether the mayor’s here or not, we’re here and we want to make something happen.”
The councilmembers gave no details on what was discussed Thursday and said Herbert gave no indication whether he would call a special session in the near future. Emails seeking comment from the governor’s office were not immediately returned.
State and city leaders have said an inland port is among the largest and most important economic development opportunities to grace Utah in a generation.
Its supporters say a regional trade hub would bring development, trade and jobs to the area adjacent to the Salt Lake City International Airport. Some opposition groups worry, however, about the environmental impacts a project of its size will have on the area’s air quality and sensitive wetlands.
And then there’s the port authority’s shaky start. The governing board’s first meeting was cut short last month when questions arose stemming from incomplete ethics reviews, among other issues.
Barely a week later, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes resigned the board seat he had appointed himself to, becoming the second appointee to quit due to a conflict of interest. Hughes reportedly held property within a five-mile buffer of the inland port’s boundaries, a violation of the law that created the board.
The Utah Legislature created the Utah Inland Port Authority in a last-minute version of a bill passed just 26 hours before lawmakers adjourned for the 2018 session. City leaders called it a “land grab” and said they did not get a chance for input before the final version of the bill was pushed through.
Upon signing the bill, Gov. Gary Herbert pledged to call a special session to address city concerns, including the board’s makeup and taxing authority. But early negotiations with the city fell apart and the special session has not yet happened.
Biskupksi spokesman Matthew Rojas said the mayor is committed to public engagement over the project and has “serious concerns” over the impact a future inland port would have on the environment and the valley’s air quality.
We should not rush to codify into law the framework of a project which everyone agrees could have enormous impact on our environment, economy, and health of residents. The public deserves to be heard.
— Mayor J. Biskupski (@slcmayor) July 12, 2018
“Environmental concerns shouldn’t be a hindrance,” Rojas said. “They should be a positive.”
After the meeting Rogers questioned the mayor’s absence and her commitment to addressing those concerns.
“Where’s the mayor?” Rogers asked. “If she’s so concerned about environmental issues, she should be up here discussing them.”
— Charlie Luke (@CharlieLukeSLC) July 13, 2018