SALT LAKE CITY — Just a day after the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission voted to recommend moving the Utah State Prison from Draper to Salt Lake City, Mayor Ralph Becker raised the possibility of launching a referendum to stop it.
"We're going to keep all options open," the Salt Lake City mayor told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright Wednesday, including the possibility of gathering enough voter signatures statewide to put the move on an upcoming ballot.
"This will be a state decision that I think would be subject to referendum laws. It's certainly not an easy process to go through," Becker said. "But that's something we could consider as a city."
Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, whose district includes the selected site west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, said he'd like to see a statewide referendum vote on the prison move.
"In my opinion, this is a big enough issue that it should go to the voters of Utah," he said.
The commission's unanimous choice of the Salt Lake site over three other potential locations, in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County, and in Grantsville in Tooele County, must still be ratified by lawmakers.
Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday he's giving "strong consideration" to calling them into special session on Aug. 19, the Legislature's next interim day.
"There's no reason to delay," the governor said.
He said the Salt Lake site has "some upside," including the potential for new businesses in the area once the infrastructure needed for the new prison is in place.
"Maybe that is the best spot," Herbert said.
But he also said this is "an emotional issue. Nobody wants the prison, including Draper." Lawmakers, the governor said, face "trying to evaluate what is the best location, not what is the perfect location."
Becker told the Deseret News he spent 1 ½ hours Wednesday meeting with Democratic state lawmakers to discuss protecting the city from any costs associated with the $550 million, 4,000-bed facility.
"Trying to make sure those direct impacts are adequately addressed is important. It's important to the city," the mayor said, citing costs including building new roads, extending utilities and dealing with environmental issues.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said the mayor also wants to see the city indemnified against any legal action related to the prison, including its construction.
The Salt Lake site, not far from the Great Salt Lake, is the most costly of the four sites to prepare for building because of spongy soil that will have to be drained over 18 months.
Getting the Legislature's GOP majority to go along with eliminating the city's legal liability could be difficult as long as there is a threat that the state could be sued to stop the prison move, however.
"Maybe that's part of the arrangement, maybe that's part of the deal that's struck," King said. "This is all part of the political, financial and economic chips that are in play."
The mayor, who placed second in Tuesday's primary election behind former legislator Jacki Biskupski, said a lawsuit against the state also continues to be an option for the city.
An analysis shared with the commission last fall cites potential issues related to wetlands as well as a former landfill adjacent to the site that could cause contamination if it is disturbed by the construction.
Rogers said he supports the mayor's talk of a lawsuit.
"I would back him 100 percent on that," the councilman said. "We've made it a priority this year to try to stop the prison from coming to Salt Lake City, not only to stop it from moving (here) but moving from Draper."
The commission's co-chairman, House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the risk of a lawsuit "exists in any location."
Wilson said he hopes city officials would consider the consequences of fighting the prison move on the state's ability to implement new justice reforms passed by lawmakers last session.
"People can threaten all kinds of things. We have to do what we think is in the best interest" of the state, he said. "The attorney general's office will defend any lawsuits that come and will defend them vigorously."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it's going to be interesting to see how the city's fight play outs legally and politically.
"There are certainly non-political reasons to favor Salt Lake as a relocation site," Karpowitz said. "But I think the fact that Salt Lake is a Democratic city makes it that much easier for Republican legislators to choose that site."
Democrats are "operating from a position of weakness," he said, in any attempt to keep the unpopular prison project out of the party's stronghold in the state. "They may be able to soften the blow, one way or another."
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