SALT LAKE CITY — Though talks between Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Gov. Gary Herbert hit a wall prior to a planned special session to make changes to the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority law, the Salt Lake City Council has stepped in and begun its own negotiations.
And a special session may be back on the table.
Gov. Gary Herbert hinted at that possibility Thursday, saying he's "encouraged about the discussion."
"We'll have to wait and see whether a special session is warranted or not," Herbert said during his monthly KUED Ch. 7 news conference. "But there are certainly areas of concern that we ought to resolve one way or another, here in the next special session or a regular session in 2019."
The governor said there's been "renewed interest by the Salt Lake City Council reaching out and saying, 'Let's see if we can't, in fact, reopen discussions.'"
"The good news for me is we're engaged in dialogue and discussion again with Salt Lake City," Herbert said.
Herbert's deputy chief of staff Paul Edwards said later Thursday that "there's no plan right now for a special session," but he noted, "There are very productive conversations going on with the Salt Lake City Council to help address the concerns that Salt Lake City has."
Throughout the 2018 legislative session, Salt Lake City leaders protested SB234 for giving the port authority's 11-member board the power to usurp ultimate land use authority and capture 100 percent of the project area's tax increment. The governor signed the bill but promised changes to quell some of city officials' concerns.
Amid stalled talks between Biskupski and the governor's office, House Speaker Greg Hughes — who largely pushed the inland port's creation — and Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, held a joint news conference to call for renewed negotiations, even though city leaders hadn't been apprised of their talks, which the two lawmakers described as "spontaneous."
City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said after that call from Hughes and Dabakis that she "graciously accepted that invitation" and began talking with the governor, Hughes and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, the sponsor of SB234.
Mendenhall said she doesn't "want to put the cart before the horse," but she's "optimistic" that the council and its staff can work with Herbert's office to come up with a compromise, "hopefully" before the Utah Inland Port Authority's board gets down to business.
Mendenhall noted council staff and attorneys have started a "working group" with the governor's office and legislative counsel to sort through SB234 and "help put together some scenarios based on what the elected officials have been discussing to help us get to the meat of the more difficult decisions."
"We're having more productive conversations in the last month than we had during the session," Mendenhall said. "I think both sides would agree that it's going well."
But the new negotiations have caused some friction between the City Council and Biskupski's office, which clashed Thursday over whether Biskupski has been welcome to participate in the conversations.
Mendenhall said "(the mayor) and her staff have been invited to participate in the staff work that's currently taking place, and she has declined so far."
But Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said the mayor — while her staff has been invited to work with council staff — "has been intentionally excluded from working with other elected officials" and that it would be a "mischaracterization to say the mayor has been invited."
Rojas noted that Biskupski's administration continues to work with Stevenson on potential changes to the law, and the mayor is "more than willing to come to the table with anybody who wants to have an open and honest dialogue."
"It's better to have the city speak with one voice — to put personalities aside and just get down with the work for the people," Rojas said. "This is just a distraction that is not helping solve anything."
Yet Mendenhall said, "We are not trying to exclude the mayor from this process by any means," noting that "none of the elected officials have been invited" to the staff-level working group since the staff work hasn't been completed yet.
Also in question is the City Council's seat on the port authority's board, since Councilman James Rogers has been disqualified from serving under SB234's current language because he owns a rental office property within the port's boundaries.
Mendenhall has said the council hopes to keep Rogers on the board — and she worries SB234's conflict of interest language could put elected officials in that district at a disadvantage — so some changes to the law's conflict of interest language may be necessary.
Hughes removed himself from the board earlier this week amid controversy over his own properties that disqualified him from the board because of that same provision.5 comments on this story
Prior to Hughes' resignation, Edwards said Herbert had no interest in calling a special session to adjust SB234's conflict of interest language. But the governor said Thursday he's "come to appreciate some of the complexities" in the law, and that Rogers' disqualification may have been an "unintended consequence."
Edwards said any potential changes to the law's conflict of interest language "is not about an individual," but rather "about the concerns of this municipality."