Biskupski rebuffed pleas to join inland port negotiations, barred city employees from participating in talks

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has been absent from negotiations between city and state leaders over changes to the controversial inland port bill, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Biskupski’s team has previously maintained they were being excluded from meetings involving the city council, legislative leaders, and Governor Herbert’s office, but that claim appears not to be true. 

Text messages obtained by show representatives from Gov. Herbert’s office almost begging to get the mayor involved in negotiations over changes to the inland port bill before the compromise state and city leaders announced on Monday morning. 

“I nearly pleaded with you to ask the mayor to participate in these discussions. I don’t know what else we can do. We certainly will not accept the ongoing representations that the mayor has not been invited to participate. Those representations are simply not accurate,” read one text from Ron Gordon in the Governor’s office to Biskupski’s Deputy Chief of Staff, David Litvack.

Another text from Gordon to Litvack read, “It is misleading for anyone to suggest the mayor has not been invited to anything. She did not know about the most recent meeting because no one from her staff has been at the other meetings.”

Litvack replied to Gordon: “I understand your perspective. We are definitely not trying to be misleading; I think we have different perspectives.”

Another text message from the Governor’s office to Litvack reads:

“We have received a forwarded message in which you suggest that the mayor has been excluded from inland port meetings. Dave, when you and I spoke on the phone last week, I tried very hard to convince you that the Mayor should be participating in these discussions. It is frustrating to hear that she now believes she has been excluded from something. I explained that this is the time for all stakeholders to provide input and you made it clear that the Mayor would not be doing that at this time.”

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Biskupski has not endorsed the proposed compromise legislation and plans to testify during the public hearing on the bill Wednesday.

Biskupski was negotiating with Gov. Gary Herbert on possible changes to the inland port bill, pushing for a special legislative session in May to make fixes. Those talks broke down, and the May session never happened. However, the Salt Lake City Council jumped into the void and eventually brokered an agreement with state leaders on changes to the legislation. Herbert has called a special session for Wednesday afternoon.

Litvack says neither Biskupski nor her staff, were involved in the second round of negotiations with the state because they got the signal that they weren’t wanted.

“When the city council negotiations started with Speaker Hughes and Gov. Herbert in early June, it was made clear to us at that time that the mayor was not welcome to be a part of those negotiations,” said Litvack. “After that, we got a request as staff to participate in these working groups on the inland port that were happening.”

Litvack acknowledges that staff members did not participate in those working groups. 

However, it wasn’t just staffers not participating in the negotiations. Biskupski also blocked the council from using city staffers in the talks. 

City Councilman Charlie Luke says they were barred from using city planning staff during the discussions. As a last resort, the city council had to turn to Salt Lake County to get help from Mayor Ben McAdams and their planning staff.

“It was incredibly difficult,” says Luke. “The way cities or any government operates is you have experts and individuals who understand key aspects of policy. When the council is denied access to any of those experts who are paid with taxpayer money, it does a disservice to the residents.”

Luke also says that Biskupski initially barred the council from using the city’s attorneys, but they pushed back citing city ordinance that states the attorneys do not work for a specific part of the government, and Biskupski eventually relented.

Litvack says the mayor denied access to the administrative staff because she did not want city resources used in a process that she felt was headed in the wrong direction.

“The mayor felt the negotiations were going a direction that would not give the community what they deserve concerning land use and other issues. She did not feel comfortable putting administrative staff in that position.”

It’s not clear what Biskupski would do differently. City Council Chair Erin Mendenhall said during Monday’s press conference to announce the inland port deal that they had addressed several key areas that were of concern to the council from the original legislation, issues Biskupski was bargaining on before the previous round of talks fell apart. Plus, the city council was able to get an agreement to set aside 10% of the tax revenue from the port for affordable housing.

“This project was taking shape whether or not the city was at the table,” said Mendenhall. “We didn’t lose sight of those issues. Changes aren’t going to happen unless we engage with those who can make it happen.”

Furthermore, Litvack says the whole action on changes to the inland port has been rushed, which is why Biskupski has taken an oppositional stance so far.

“There’s an interesting contrast between this process and the development at the Point of the Mountain,” he says. “That had a very robust public engagement and a two-year planning process that came before any legislative fix. Our community deserves that same process.”

However, Luke isn’t buying that argument.

“She was not concerned about the public process when she was negotiating with the governor,” he says. “The public process that the mayor is now demanding is a new argument. She was more than fine with the amount of public input when she and her team were negotiating with the governor. It seems the only time the mayor is concerned about the public engagement argument was when she refused to participate.”

But, says Litvack, this is just the start to a long process, and the mayor did not want to give her tacit approval to a process she believes is flawed and unfair.

“We had to make a judgment call on how to advocate. Our judgment call was to stand with the community and make sure their voice is heard. Do we think this is the end of the conversation? Absolutely not. This is just the beginning.”

Perhaps. But Luke says Biskupski refusal to participate was shortsighted and didn’t do Salt Lake City any favors.

“It’s petty. It’s dysfunctional and does a massive disservice to the residents of Salt Lake City on one of the most important issues that will face us for decades.”