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Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker uses veto to put leash back on dogs

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 3:23 a.m. MDT

Forrest Call pets his dog Jasmine at Parley Historic Nature Park. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Forrest Call pets his dog Jasmine at Parley Historic Nature Park. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Mayor Ralph Becker used his power of veto for the first time Monday, nixing a City Council-approved management plan that would allow off-leash dogs continued access to much of Parleys Historic Nature Park.

In a letter to the City Council, Becker says the council's plan "does not live up to the tradition and mission of the park" and "lacks adequate protection of this special area."

Last month, the City Council approved a management plan that would allow dogs to remain off-leash throughout the 63-acre park, while limiting access within 50 feet of Parleys Creek.

But the council's plan allows dogs to continue to access to the south side of the park, an area that Becker — and a minority of the City Council — says needs to be protected and rehabilitated. The mayor also said water contamination issues are not adequately addressed in the council's plan.

The City Council will have an opportunity to override the veto when it meets Jan. 4, though it doesn't appear it will have the five votes needed to do so.

After the council's plan was approved by a 4-3 vote Dec. 14, those on the losing end took solace in the fact that Becker had threatened to veto any action that failed to adequately protect the park's south side and water areas.

"I'm not worried about it, because either the mayor is going to right an injustice or the state of Utah water quality people will come in and take care of the problem," Councilman JT Martin said after the vote. "One way or another, the mess needs to be cleaned up."

If the council fails to override the veto, the revised plan presented to the City Council on Dec. 14 will go into effect. That plan allows for more off-leash dog area than was first proposed in May (15 acres instead of 12 acres), but it would keep dogs out of the park's south side and limit their access to Parleys Creek to two points.

Becker is particularly concerned about recent water-quality readings at Parleys Creek that indicate fecal contamination "is a significant problem that should not be overlooked," according to a letter from the Salt Lake County Health Department.

"The water quality in that segment of Parleys Creek is seriously impaired. It's in really bad shape," Becker said. "We have to get a handle on the water quality. I don't want to wait for the state or the county health department to require that we do something. I want us to be proactive."

Located in the mouth of Parleys Canyon, near 2700 East and 2700 South, the park has been a haven for dogs and their owners, a place they can enjoy the outdoors together within walking distance of their homes.

In July 2007, the City Council designated the park as an off-leash area. The council at that time also requested that city officials develop a management plan to focus on long-term preservation of the park.

Becker says that plan "should provide long-term guidance on how to protect water quality in Parleys Creek and balance the interests of cultural preservation, habitat conservation and recreation across the spectrum of user groups."

The plan approved last month by the council, he said, fails to do that.

"We've heard from people who feel shut out of the park because there's no place they can go there where they are free from off-leash dogs," Becker said. "I really think it's really unfair to have a regional park that's so desired by many users and to basically exclude a segment of our population."

Dog owners who use the park contend that people who want to experience nature have endless options available to them compared with areas that allow dogs — let alone off-leash dogs.

Jack Arnott, a member of Millcreek FIDOS (Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Spaces), says he doesn't see the mayor's veto as a "death knell." The City Council still has time to come up with something that's veto-proof, he said.

"The council has been very conscientious about trying to do the right thing," Arnott said. "I still think there's a good chance they'll come to some common ground."

Councilman Carlton Christensen, who, like Martin, was on the losing end of last month's vote, said he'd be surprised if the council can come up with a compromise to override the veto.

That said, the City Council could come back with a revised management plan — perhaps as soon as the end of January — that at least five members of the council can agree upon, Christensen said.

"I wasn't on the prevailing side, so I don't think it's my place to go out and get a compromise," he said. If that's something the majority of the council wants to do, however, "I certainly would be productive in trying to find a solution."

Becker threatened to used his veto power once before but ultimately decided against it.

In June 2009, Becker considered a veto of the 2010 city library budget, which included a property tax increase to fund two new west-side branches. The mayor had concerns that the administration didn't have time to conduct an analysis on the projects' impact on the overall city budget.

The City Council had approved the library budget by a 5-2 vote, making it likely that it would have overridden the veto anyway.

The last time a Salt Lake City mayor used the office's veto power was in May 2006, when then-Mayor Rocky Anderson tried to stop construction of a skybridge as part of the City Creek Center project.

In April 2007, the City Council amended the downtown master plan, allowing for skybridges under some circumstances. Following a challenge by Mayor Anderson, the council reaffirmed that decision by a 6-1 overriding vote.

A search of the Deseret News archives indicates the last time a veto by a Salt Lake City mayor was upheld was in 1988, when Palmer DePaulis' vetoed the council's $79 million budget containing across-the-board cuts to fund $600,000 in employee raises.

e-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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