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Rocky Anderson photo
Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, left, and Sergio Chiamparino, mayor of Torino, Italy, during Europe trip in 2005.

When Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson travels to Chicago, Washington and London for environmental conferences, Olympic trips and soirees with other mayors, he returns with accolades and to criticism from some who say city business stalls when he is gone.

Anderson was out of town for 73 days in a one-year period from mid-March 2005 to March 2006. Of those 73 days, 53 were weekdays. Ten of the 16 trips he took during that year were for environmental conferences or meetings, particularly related to global warming, his favorite cause.

"We are on the map like almost no other city in the world when it comes to our climate-protection campaign," said Anderson, who has made reducing greenhouse gas emissions and better air quality goals of his administration.

Programs that have snowballed into invitations to international conferences include purchasing wind power for the city, replacing city hall light bulbs with high-efficiency bulbs, switching traditional traffic lights for LED bulbs, and replacing older fleet vehicles with fuel-efficient ones.

Anderson touts the World Leadership Award he got in London in December and an award from the League of United Latin American Cities in March as added exposure for a city that he said still suffers from negative perceptions.

But the national and international attention are extra-municipal and may come at the cost of attention to city business, say Councilman Eric Jergensen and other council members, who question the value of Anderson's "international and national agenda" over a local focus.

"If you're a widow living in Central City, how does it benefit her that you're receiving this award?" said Dave Buhler, the council's chairman. "It's up to him to justify, not up to me to justify, what he does."

City business

Council members said that city business languishes while Anderson is gone. Anderson said the council is responsible for delays. The back-and-forth accusations surfaced over a compatible-housing ordinance from 2005, a proposed ordinance with a requirement for all new city buildings to follow green building standards, a possible bond for new police and fire facilities, and Pioneer Park renovations.

A majority of council members were reluctant to criticize his time away too strenuously for fear that he would start staying home.

The example that Jergensen, Buhler and Council member Jill Remington Love specifically point to is the compatible-housing ordinance the council passed in December. The ordinance restricts height, garage placement and side-yard setbacks to force new and renovated houses to match their neighbors in scale. The statute went through months of revision and public hearings with extensive public comment.

"The night we were trying to adopt it, the mayor was at the meeting and was trying to get up to speed, to figure out what it was that we were doing," Buhler said. "What issue have we had that more directly impacts the people of the city than this? He parachutes in for the meeting. It was kind of strange and sad."

Anderson said that any claims his travel holds up city business are false.

"There has never been anything that was held up because I was out of town," Anderson said. "If there's something that somebody needs to talk to me about, I can always be reached."

Councilman Carlton Christensen said that although Anderson might be reachable, sometimes his presence would matter more than a phone call or a representative's attendance.

"I was surprised to not see him at (Police) Chief (Chris) Burbank's swearing-in ceremony," Christensen said. Anderson was in New York for a conference March 31 when Burbank took over from former Chief Rick Dinse.

Anderson pointed out that he interviewed and selected Burbank in time to take Dinse's place, and that his trip was scheduled before he knew when Burbank's first day would be.

"I may have missed a ribbon-cutting or recently the swearing-in of our police chief, but I think substance is more important sometimes than ceremony," Anderson said.

Other mayors

Even so, mayors of other Western cities slightly larger than Salt Lake City don't travel nearly as much as Anderson.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, for instance, was gone 34 days during the same time period. Hickenlooper's travel schedule coincides with much of Anderson's, including several trips to conferences for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon almost never leaves town, said his spokesman, Scott Phelps. Phoenix, home to 1.4 million people, has had $10 billion invested in its downtown in the past two years, Phelps said.

Gordon's "pet project is essentially keeping Phoenix on the rise and not blinking and not missing opportunities," Phelps said. "He doesn't like to be gone. He's afraid that we'll have the chance to land another corporation or build another high-rise and he'll miss it."

In Utah, other government leaders also travel less than Anderson. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon was gone 25 days from March 2005 to March 2006. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. traveled about 40 days in the same time period.

The majority of Anderson's trips are paid for by the groups sponsoring the events he attends. The groups paid a minimum of $7,300 for Anderson's flights and hotels, although that number does not include several trips for which the city did not keep records. Anderson spent $3,700 of city money, the bulk of which was for two trips to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the New Cities Project, another organization of mayors.

A positive image

Putting a price tag on what the mayor does at national and international environmental events is difficult, Anderson and two of his advisers said. Instead, the city sees benefits through better word-of-mouth exposure, and now the city has a better image than ever before, said Alison McFarlane, Anderson's economic-development adviser.

"Years ago, I worked for the Utah Travel Council . . . one study that was most disturbing for me was that people did not have a positive or a negative impression of Salt Lake City or Utah — they had no impression at all," McFarlane said. "What a pitiable situation to be in. You say, 'Salt Lake City,' and nothing comes to mind. If you were to do that now, I think the results would be far, far different, and I think a lot of that is due to Rocky's activism."

Recognition has come from circles closer to home, too, Love said.

"I think that many of my constituents appreciate the dialogue," Love said. "Whether it's the freedom forums or drug prevention or environmental issues, I think they're glad that they have a mayor who is creating those forums and talking about those things."

The mayor's environmental involvement got the attention of Norman Tabish, a longtime west-side resident who lobbied Anderson to nix a recycling plant proposal in his neighborhood last year.

"I honestly believe that if there's anything that would interfere with the health and welfare for anyone in the city anywhere, he would stand up and fight for it," Tabish said. "I couldn't have anything bad to say as far as the environment and the time he takes off — I think what he does eventually leads back to all of us."

'What's in it for me?'

On the other hand, residents, businesses and other officials are concerned about items other than global warming.

"The constituency in Salt Lake are saying, 'What's in it for me? What's this guy doing for me as the mayor?' " said Bill Martin, a managing partner of commercial real estate brokerage house Commerce CRG, which did more than 400 land and lease deals in Salt Lake City in 2005.

"I'm never one to reduce a person's passion on issues, but he doesn't connect the dots in the business community," Martin said. "If he were to bring back three companies to solve our environmental issues or our recycling programs or further biodiesel fuel or economy of fuel or wind or solar (power) — maybe we could be known as an area that could help develop future solutions for the environment. Then I would see the connection to the trips. If he's just using the trips to make himself feel good or find another job after he's mayor, it doesn't make me feel good."

Martin's implication that Anderson may be job-hunting surfaced in comments from other people — residents and elected officials alike. But Anderson called it nonsense. He could run for re-election in 2007, but he hasn't said publicly whether he will seek a third term or retire from the city.

"It has to do with whether at this point of my life I think that my energies and time and whatever talent I have can bring about the greatest positive change here as compared to doing something else," Anderson said. "If I were focused solely on filling potholes, I probably wouldn't even be thinking of running for re-election."

E-mail: kswinyard@desnews.com