‘I hope they get fired’: Utah senators blame Salt Lake City lobbyists for controversial inland port negotiations; mayor, council call for veto of bill

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski makes a comment on SB234, the inland port bill in the Economic Development committee meeting, Friday, March 2, 2018.

Three Utah senators criticized Salt Lake City and its lobbyists Friday over a controversial bill that the city denounced. One of the lawmakers went so far as to say the lobbyists should be fired.

It also spawned anger in the mayor’s office, which denounced the final version of the bill. Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Thursday wrote that the bill usurped the city’s taxing and zoning authority and “compromised environmental protections.” On Friday, she reiterated her opposition to the bill, saying it “undercuts local control and gives an unelected, unaccountable board authority.”

“We believe much could have been done by a serious, concentrated, and inclusive team approach, rather than the uncommunicative, closed strategy used by the city,” the senators wrote in a letter, which was drafted March 8 and intended for Biskupski and the City Council.

One of the letter’s authors, Sen. Jim Dabakis, said on Friday evening that he and his fellow letter writers, Sens. Luz Escamilla and Gene Davis, were “frankly annoyed,” about being left out of the negotiations.

But the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, David Litvack, said that exclusion wasn’t the city’s choice. The decision of whom to include, Litvack said, was made by the Senate sponsor, Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. Stevenson did not respond to request for comment Friday.

And Ken Bullock — who, along with Lynn Pace, lobbied for the city in negotiations — communicated with Escamilla “continuously” via phone calls, text messages and two meetings throughout the legislative session, Litvack said.

“Truth is, I may be overstating my ability to influence,“ he said. “But, I’ll tell you, if I had known about [the negotiations] … we would have ended up with a much better deal than we got from these lobbyists who are simply arrogant and think that they can just go in there and do everything.”

“For the third consecutive year, we would like to emphasize that we, Senators elected to represent Salt Lake City, believe the city is very poorly represented by paid lobbyists at the Capitol,” the letter continued. “Indeed, we think they do the city harm.”

“Council members have extreme concerns with the bill, which undercuts core city functions, such as taxing and certain land use authority, from the City,” the council wrote in a news release Friday evening. “The bill also puts more than one fourth of land within the City under control of a majority non-elected Board instead of City leaders, elected by residents to represent the interests of the public. Council leaders say the bill could set a bad precedent for any city in Utah.”

After four substitutions, the final version of the bill, “with many key changes, did not receive a public hearing and was passed late at night in less than an hour after it was released,” the release continued.

“We are urging all Utah residents to contact Governor Herbert to veto SB234 because it is an unprecedented land and power grab of nearly 22,000 acres,” Biskupski wrote in a Friday evening news release.

“Up until Wednesday night at 10 p.m.,” Litvack said, “we thought we had an understanding with the senate sponsor, that we had one change left that we wanted on the bill that he had said to us he supported, and we thought we were there. I don’t know what happened to cause the change.”

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