Chris Wharton: Mendenhall stepped up for Salt Lake City

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Before I took my seat on the Salt Lake City Council last January, I didn’t really know Erin Mendenhall. But after watching her keep her cool and fight for the City through high-stress inland port negotiations over the last year, I know that Erin has what it takes to be our next mayor.

The magnitude of what Erin has done and is doing for Salt Lake City can only be understood if you know just how detrimental the inland port situation was for the city. Negotiations between the state and the city were never treated as a conversation between equals. Ultimately, the state held all the cards, as it generally does.

The City Council spent months on strategic planning and good-faith collaboration to protect the city from any ill effects of the inland port. Then state lawmakers suddenly pulled the rug out from under us in March of 2018. We were completely blindsided.

In the span of 30 or 40 minutes on one of the last nights of the legislative session, all of the work done by the council and mayor to protect the city were undone. Lawmakers suddenly passed a bill that took away both the land-use authority and tax revenue for more than a quarter of Salt Lake City.

The morning after the bill passed, our heads were still spinning. Still, Erin pointed out that it was in the best interests of our residents to get Salt Lake County and other local government leaders in our corner. She and I worked hard to offer local officials the details, briefing them on the underhanded political maneuvers and extraordinary environmental consequences of the Legislature’s actions. I remember watching their faces as they turned from curiosity to shock to anger.

It’s tough to articulate just how stressful and overwhelming that time was, but Erin never lost sight of the job we were elected to do. She reminded all of us on the council that our objective hadn’t changed, not just with her words but with her hope and tenacity. She reminded us that no matter what happens, we keep working to protect our city and our residents.

The council knew our city needed a better plan than what had been put in place if we left everything in the state’s hands. We weighed our options, had hours of discussions, and decided we had no other option but to take this very small window of opportunity to make a bad situation better for the people of Salt Lake City. So the council re-opened negotiations with the State.

We agreed that Erin would lead the negotiations, but I’d be lying if I said we thought she would succeed. At that point, progress felt impossible. The council really didn’t have any political leverage, just the goal of fighting for our residents. The worst possible iteration of the law was on the books and there was no clear path to making it better.

Still, Erin believed something could be salvaged. The council had a trove of data and research about the city’s needs and priorities, and we were determined to push back. Erin went bravely into those negotiations and made the City’s case. She kept her cool under staggering pressure and convinced the governor and Republican legislative leaders to make room for some of the city’s most pressing needs.

After six weeks of negotiations, Erin made more progress on the city’s goals than we ever hoped for. Some of her biggest achievements were reducing the size of the port area, securing compensation for City taxpayers for public services in the port area, securing a dedicated 10 percent tax revenue stream for affordable housing, and restoring the wetlands buffer zone that had been established over several generations. Given the circumstances, it was a victory for the city and a small but meaningful step forward.

Erin will be the first to tell you that there is still progress to be made. But she stepped up for Salt Lake City when we thought that the cause was lost. I can unequivocally say that there is no one I trust more to be our next mayor than Erin Mendenhall.

Salt Lake City Council Member Chris Wharton

Chris Wharton represents District 3 on the Salt Lake City Council.