Bob Bernick’s Notebook: A Study in Contrasts

Two recent politically-charged issues, and how they were handled and mishandled, give students of Utah politics fine examples of what to do and not do.

I’m speaking of whether to give $100,000 in taxpayer funds to convicted federal trespasser Phil Lyman for his court appeals and Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker’s forcing out of former City Police Chief Chris Burbank.

For GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican legislators, the Lyman money could have dragged on for more than a year, and dragged down the re-election effort of Herbert and GOP legislators in 2016.

Getting it out of the way now – by having the Utah Association of Counties formally withdraw their Lyman support request before the Constitutional Defense Council – was a brilliant stroke by Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

On the other hand, Becker’s handling of the Burbank issue has turned into a real political mess – just weeks before city voters cast ballots in this year’s mayoral primary contest.

UtahPolicy tries to be a resource for policymakers and politicians – so says our publisher LaVarr Webb, who often writes columns on policy/political issues and how to handle them on these pages.

And the Becker/Herbert separate actions couldn’t be more of a case study.

Some history:

Burbank allowed a deputy chief – accused of sexual harassing three female cops – to retire with full pension benefits; even putting the man on five months paid leave before his 20-year retirement service came due.

Becker knew about the sexual harassment claims over a year ago – and the mayor’s chief of staff DID send Burbank a letter saying the deputy chief had to be demoted before being allowed to retire – something Burbank didn’t do.

As heat built on the mayor over the last few months, Becker ham-handedly tried to force Burbank to read an apology letter to the media – which basically had Burbank calling himself an ass and clearly Becker of any wrongdoing or misjudgment.

Instead of reading the letter openly, Burbank resigned.

Burbank is now threatening to sue the city over $23,000 in unused sick leave he says the city owes him.

A big mess.

Especially when you throw in the fact that two separate investigations found that the deputy chief did, in fact, sexually harass the three female cops – making the Becker administration look really bad to the many liberal female voters (and the men who support their causes) in the city.

A great example of not seeing a potentially politically boondoggle a year from your re-election, when you likely knew some liberal woman, or women, may be running against you in 2015.

Becker didn’t recognize the sexual harassment tar baby, he got stuck to the tar baby, and now he can’t get away from the tar baby.

On the other hand, Cox, who Herbert named as the chair of the Constitutional Defense Council, and the governor have slickly sidestepped an issue that state Democrats were literally drooling over:

— The giving of $100,000 of taxpayer money to a convicted misdemeanant who drove an ATV on to a dirt road he knew the BLM had closed for that kind of use.

Maybe San Juan County Commissioner Lyman had the greatest of reasons for his actions.

Maybe U.S. federal prosecutors were way out of line in their charges against him – charges that never should have been brought.

And maybe a federal judge unjustly kept out of evidence facts that could have led to Lyman’s acquittal – all things Lyman’s supporters claim.

 But it doesn’t matter.

All the voters would see in 2016 – as Herbert and Cox ran for re-election – is that the governor and his top aide gave a convicted man $100,000 of their taxpayer funds.

And the Democrats would have pounded that over and over and over again.

Now Herbert gives Lyman $10,000 out of the governor’s PAC and asks other anti-federal landers to make private donations to Lyman’s appeal, as well.

The issue is dead, at least for now.

And it won’t be dogging the Herbert/Cox re-election campaign next year.

In 2016, Herbert can appeal to rural voters by saying he supports Lyman, believes what he did was justified.

Herbert can tell urban voters – Republicans and independents alike – that he stopped efforts to have the state spend $100,000 in taxpayer funds to defend a convicted criminal.

Cox told the CDC meeting this week – where UAC withdrew its $100,000 request after a closed meeting – that the governor’s office was getting thousands of emails and phone calls against giving Lyman the $100,000 – with more than a few threatening a lawsuit if the money was given.

And the CDC attorneys in the closed meeting may have told council members all the legal pitfalls the state would step into if it gave Lyman the appeal money – including the fact that the state probably would lose any lawsuits over the spending.

But now there won’t be a lawsuit/court hearings on this in the 2016 election year.

Becker: A good example of a political hot-button mishandled right in front of voters’ ballots.

Herbert/Cox: A good example of kicking down a potential political hot-button 12 months from a re-election.

Take heed, UtahPolicy readers, take heed.