SALT LAKE CITY — "The chasm that exists between the east and west sides is ages old," said Robert "Archie" Archuleta, a resident of Salt Lake City's west side for more than 50 years.
"People in power think we're disposable, but we're not," he said. "We're fighting back."
Archuleta spoke Monday following a news conference at Riverside Park, where state representatives and other leaders of Salt Lake's west-side community gathered with dozens of residents to protest the Prison Relocation Commission's recommendation to rebuild the Utah State Prison west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
The Legislature will enter a special session Wednesday to vote on the recommendation, which is opposed by Salt Lake officials who are considering a lawsuit or referendum to block the prison from Utah's capital city.
Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, convened the conference to augment the voices of west-side residents who she says are being ignored by lawmakers.
"It seems as if legislators are not listening to the people of the west side," Hollins said. "It's sort of like we are not part of the city and our vision for the state is not important."
Joined by other elected officials and Democratic leaders, Hollins said the west side already houses its fair share of rehabilitation facilities, from halfway houses to drug treatment programs. Building the $550 million, 4,000-bed facility on Salt Lake's west side would aggravate the community's social stigmas of poverty and crime, she said.
"This community has opened its arms to people from diverse backgrounds, culture, religion and beliefs," Hollins said. "We take our civic duties very seriously. But this community is already participating in the rehabilitation process in this state. Other communities have got to step up and take part of that process."
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she worries about what placing the prison on the west side will "symbolize" to her community.
"You tell us you can't pass Medicaid expansion because it's going to cost the state, but yet you're willing to invest in a site that is going to cost more than any other site to build a prison," Romero said.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission made its decision on a political basis rather than adequately considering the negative impacts it could have on residents. She said the GOP-dominated Legislature is "penalizing the city for being more independent" because it's represented by Democrats.
House Minority Leader Bring King, D-Salt Lake City, said politics was "without question" a factor in the commission's vote.
"The fact that Salt Lake City is predominantly Democratic makes it easier for the Legislature, being made up as it is as supermajority Republican, to say, 'Let's just put it in Salt Lake,'" King said. "And that troubles me because we ought to be putting the prison where it's going to do the best job of serving the inmates and the people of Utah."
House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the commission's co-chairman, said that's exactly why lawmakers chose the Salt Lake site, noting accessibility for employees and volunteers, as well as proximity to rehabilitation programs.
Wilson said the new facility would lift the west-side community, not cripple it.
"This site will spur more economic development and create more jobs than any of the other sites will," he said. "We care deeply about making sure Utahns have good-paying jobs, and this will help create those jobs for residents in that area, as well as surrounding areas."
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright on Monday that the commission's vote was "bipartisan and unanimous."
Of the seven lawmakers on the Prison Relocation Commission, two are Democrats: West Valley Sen. Karen Mayne and Murray Rep. Mark Wheatley.
"Good information drives good decision-making," Hughes said. "We have Republicans and Democrats standing on the same site that makes the most sense for a generational decision like this. So I would argue it's not just raw politics."
Wilson said lawmakers who believe the site selection was purely political "probably don't have a thorough understanding of the exhaustive process that the commission members went through to try to find a site that's in the best interest of all Utahns."
"Where we put the prison has nothing to do with trying to make this a political process in the least, and this site is miles away from where anyone lives in that area," he said. "There's a reason this was a unanimous, bipartisan vote. And people who did their homework recognize this is the best place."
Last week, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker raised the possibility of launching a referendum or filing a lawsuit to stop the prison move if the Legislature votes to approve the site. Becker's senior adviser, Lynn Pace, said city officials are waiting to see what happens at Wednesday's special session before proceeding with those plans.
"If, as we all expect, that becomes the decision, then we'll deal with that decision and the possibilities moving forward," Pace said.
Hughes said the Utah House of Representatives will convene about 3 p.m. Wednesday for the vote.
"I'm absolutely confident the House of Representatives will do the right thing," he said. "I think they're going to support the (commission's) unanimous, bipartisan decision. We've put our time in, and I would like to see the state of Utah and the executive branch move forward and move forward quickly."
Romero said she will fight "toe-to-toe" to prevent the move and support Salt Lake City officials "100 percent of the way" if they choose to pursue a referendum or a lawsuit.
"If this is going to pass," she said, "we're going to go down fighting, and we're going to let them see the west-side spirit."
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