Homelessness, inland port, air quality highlight first major Salt Lake City mayoral debate

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — At times exchanging snarky, but good-natured jabs at one another and periodically drawing laughs or applause from the audience, the first major Salt Lake City mayoral debate Wednesday night put candidates through their paces on issues ranging from homelessness and housing to air quality and the inland port.

Seven out of eight candidates showed for Wednesday night’s debate, hosted by the Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning governmental advocacy group, at the Salt Lake City Main Library, all vying to prove they’d be the best choice to replace Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski when she steps down at the end of the year.

All candidates except Rainer Huck (who dropped out last minute due to an asthma attack, according to an Alliance for a Better Utah official), participated in the debate. A representative from Huck’s campaign, Abi Olufeko, took his place on the stage, where candidates spent two hours jockeying to win votes for the Aug. 13 primary.

Questions ranged on topics including how candidates will address a potential shortfall of homeless shelter beds once the Road Home’s downtown shelter shutters later this year, how they would increase the city’s affordable housing stock, where each stands on the controversial Utah Inland Port, and how each would address air quality in Utah’s capital.

A poll commissioned by Alliance for a Better Utah and released prior to the debate indicated former state Sen. Jim Dabakis is a likely frontrunner for the race, showing 27 percent of 480 likely Salt Lake City voters surveyed June 10-12 support him.

However, 34 percent of those poll respondents weren’t sure who to support — and support for other candidates was too close within the poll’s margin of error to delineate other frontrunners, according to the alliance.

Still, according to the poll, Sen. Luz Escamilla may be considered the other frontrunner for the August primary, with 10 percent of support.

Then comes former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold with 8 percent, former Pioneer Park Coalition executive director and environmental lawyer David Garbett with 6 percent, local businessman David Ibarra with 6 percent, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall with 6 percent, freelance journalist Richard Goldberger with 1 percent, and no results for Huck, who jumped into the race right before candidate filing closed earlier this month.

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During the debate, Dabakis and Escamilla — who have both worked together on Capitol Hill as state senators — at times sparred with each other, exchanging verbal jabs over who would be best equipped to lead Utah’s capital city with expertise on Capitol Hill.

Escamilla said she’d be the perfect "liaison" for the city to the state, promising her ability to partner with state leaders on issues too big for Salt Lake City to tackle on its own, including air quality and affordable housing.

"It will require the state to be a partner," Escamilla said. "We better work with them."

Dabakis threw Escamilla’s words back at her, saying she’ll be that "liaison" because he’ll be mayor, and "I’ll call you on the Senate floor" to get things done, he said, drawing laughs and applause from the crowd.

Then Penfold, who championed himself as a candidate who came from the "neighborhoods," chimed in, saying he found it funny that Democrats from the state’s minority party were "talking about how we’re going to change the state of Utah," led by a Republican majority — another quip that drew laughs and applause from the audience.

"We need to work with people in the valley, not people on the Hill," Penfold said.

Wednesday’s debate featured mostly good-natured banter, but at times candidates fired back at each other when the debate got testy.

When asked a question on homelessness, Goldberger, who calls himself a "common-sense cat" who dislikes politicians, said the city needs to change its "semantics" when talking about homeless people and homeless shelters. He said those words equate "human garbage" and "human garbage dumps," and he proposed setting up a "full-service homeless campus" that he compared to a "tent city" to be "tough" but "very very fair" on people living in the streets.

Ibarra, in a rebuttal, fired back.

"We’re never going to be like that," he said. "This is Salt Lake City. This is Utah. There is no such thing as human garbage. We are compassionate. We’ve got to help move people to where they can get help."

Goldberger clarified his "human garbage" comment was referencing the public’s perception on homeless people, not his perception.

Ibarra, like other candidates, said he was "a little suspicious" of whether the three homeless resource centers will include enough emergency shelter beds to keep up with demand once the downtown shelter shuts, and he said he’d enact a plan to help the "shelter resistant" or people who would rather live on the streets rather than in a shelter.

"We’re kidding ourselves if we think somehow we’re going to see a reduction in homeless people sleeping on the streets," said Penfold, who called for better accommodations for "everyone, no matter where they are in that spectrum of homelessness."

Olufeko said Huck would set up "homeless campuses" that would accommodate "at least 5,000" homeless people for a "fraction of what the city is spending right now."

Mendenhall said homelessness is a "complicated problem" tied to affordable housing that she said she has experience tackling. She called for a "spectrum of housing types" and other strategies to help prevent evictions.

"We can’t turn our backs on any neighbors, not at any time," she said.

Garbett said Salt Lake City needs a mayor who will be ready and willing to address the bed shortage within a week or two of the downtown shelter’s closing — and that may require more emergency overflow. "That will not be a popular decision," he said, but he pledged to make it if need be.

Escamilla said homelessness is a statewide problem, not just a city problem. She pledged her approach will be data-focused, and she’ll be ready to fix a bed shortage problem early on. "It’s a very complex issue, but I’m ready to take action on day one," she said.

Almost all candidates pledged to keep Biskupski’s lawsuit against the Utah Inland Port Authority alive, but Huck and Goldberger said they’d stop the lawsuit in its tracks, saying it’s too costly of a fight for Salt Lake taxpayers.

On air quality, Mendenhall, as chairwoman of the Utah Air Quality Board, got passionate, standing up from her chair to say Salt Lake City needs a mayor with the "financial know-how to actually move the needle" to get people out of their cars. She shot off a rapid-fire list of everything she would do as mayor, including expanding the bus network, adding electric vehicle charging stations, and encouraging residents to put electric lawn mowers in their garages.

Luz and Dabakis both said air quality is an issue too big for the city to tackle alone, and pledged partnerships at the state level to get results.

Garbett outlined what he called a more detailed, doable and fundable plan to address air quality, promising an air quality litigation wing in the city attorney’s office and a plan to move the refinery and power plant.

Ibarra said he would negotiate with Rocky Mountain Power for renewable energy and also partner with other mayors in the valley on a larger solution. "We live in this bowl together, we’ve got to do this together," he said.

Penfold promised results, too, saying he would give Salt Lake City residents free UTA fare in the first 100 days he’s in office. He pointed to his experience organizing the city’s first free fare day last year as proof he could get things done.

About seven weeks remain before the mayoral field will be narrowed down to two candidates during the Aug. 13 primary.

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