SALT LAKE CITY — The bitter divide between Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the Salt Lake City Council deepened after the mayor stepped out of the City Council's meeting Tuesday night to address a crowd of residents concerned about the creation of the controversial inland port.
In the spontaneous speech, which Biskupski confirmed in an interview with the Deseret News on Wednesday, the mayor called the state legislation that created the Utah Inland Port Authority "unconstitutional" and told the crowd, "Our day in court will happen."
However, that legal fight may not come from her administration — but perhaps concerned environmental groups, the mayor said.
"At the end of the day, there are multiple constitutional challenges in the legislation. And yes, we will have our day in court," Biskupski said Wednesday, though she noted that day won't come until the port authority board takes a contestable action.
"So until we have our day in court, there's a lot of work to do to fight for the things we believe in," she said.
Throughout the tumultuous creation of the powerful Inland Port Authority, Biskupski and her administration have consistently said litigation against the state has remained on the table. But Tuesday marked the first time Biskupski indicated a legal challenge was indeed on the horizon.
Wednesday, the mayor said that although a lawsuit currently isn't in the works, she believes that unless the port legislation is changed to address the "constitutional challenges," a lawsuit is inevitable.
"I can't see how a constitutional challenge won't arise in our legal system," she said.
For that potential challenge, Biskupski and others have pointed to the so-called "ripper clause," a rarely invoked and somewhat vague section of the Utah Constitution written to keep the state out of city affairs.
While Bisupski addressed the crowd in the hall, applause and cheers could be heard from inside the council chambers, where council members continued their work.
City Councilman James Rogers — who has often clashed with Biskupski and has been at times the most outspoken critic of her on the council — laughed into his microphone.
Amid talks of a lawsuit months ago, the City Council blocked Biskupski from filing a lawsuit regarding the inland port without the council's approval. The action came after Biskupski's talks with Gov. Gary Herbert to negotiate changes to the bill creating the port authority broke down.
Biskupski would later publicly say she declined to continue talks with state leaders after it became clear to her they had no intention of letting the city keep its final land use and tax authority.
But City Council members, arguing some change to the law was better than no change, continued their own negotiations with the governor, which ultimately led to a special session that resulted in some concessions to the city. Biskupski still opposed the compromise, arguing the port authority still has the power to decide final land use decisions and control tax increment.
Tuesday, Rogers and other council members took verbal jabs at Biskupski for leaving the City Council meeting early, before a scheduled agenda item for the council to ask questions of the administration.
"It looks like the time that the mayor is here, she's out grandstanding and raising a ruckus outside," Councilman Charlie Luke said, adding that the mayor "campaigning or doing whatever she's doing" during the council meeting was "really, really irritating."
Rogers, who is a member of the port authority board, then announced he'd just heard the mayor had said "they'll have their day in court."
"You know anything about the mayor bringing a suit against the inland port?" Rogers questioned Biskupski's chief of staff, Patrick Leary, who sat in her place at the council meeting.
What resulted was a tense exchange.
"I don't think we're at the point to talk about that," Leary said.
"Well, she just announced it out there," Rogers said.
"Well, I didn't hear it," Leary replied.
Rogers then expressed frustrations to the mayor's staff about an email regarding the inland port that he sent requesting that Biskupski call him about the issue.
"I've been waiting," Rogers said.
"James, you know where to find me," Leary rebuked.
"Hey, you guys are out there talking all sorts of (expletive)," Rogers shot back. "You can come talk to me. And I know it's not you, Patrick, and you're just the messenger, and I'd hate to have your job. That's the truth."
The email, obtained by the Deseret News Wednesday, was in response to a letter Biskupski sent to Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall requesting "clarification" on who Rogers represented as a member on the board and whether he represents "the interests and wishes of the Salt Lake City Council."
Recently, Rogers as a port board member was among the majority who voted against opening the port authority's closed-door subcommittees, which resulted in backlash from concerned residents.
Biskupski also urged the council to publicly request the port authority board open its subcommittees.
"If the mayor is interested in knowing my strategy, please have her call me," Rogers said in an emailed reply to the letter. "I can bring her up to speed on how I've been working behind the scenes to be successful and not an obstructionist."
In an interview Wednesday, Rogers said Biskupski's comments in the hall was a "typical Mayor Biskupski move" of "trying to save face for (past) screw-ups."
"I've tried to bite my tongue on this and tried to be calm and collected, but last night was a tipping point," Rogers said.
Rogers declined to elaborate to the Deseret News about his "strategy" behind the scenes because he didn't "want to shoot myself in the foot" before the next inland port board meeting.
During Tuesday's public hearing, 19 people addressed the City Council expressing environmental concerns about a global trade hub being built in the city's undeveloped northwest quadrant, as well as how a possible rail yard would impact the Salt Lake Valley's air quality.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Mendenhall thanked residents, noting the council plans to take their input to the port authority board for its consideration and to "remain at the crux of the conversation between the community and the state and the port board as this advances."
Addressing comments that called for no inland port at all, Mendenhall also noted that Biskupski's administration has played a part in advancing the port.
"I think the recent contention that has happened isn't necessarily reflective of the fact that the city has been working toward an inland port for a very long time, and that includes the mayor and her administration."
Wednesday, Biskupski said had Mendenhall "not made that statement about me, I wouldn't have even left my seat" to address residents in the hall, "but I needed to make sure people understood why those processes happened, and that was under the impression that the city would control the mission and the vision of the port."
"And then that all got pulled out from under us," Biskupski said.
Mendenhall said Wednesday Biskupski's talk of a lawsuit continues to concern her "when there isn't a basis for a case at this point, and it's illustrative of her lack of collaboration with entities that have a great deal of decision-making authority."
"For the good of the city, the council will always favor conversation over litigation," Mendenhall said.
Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a campaigner with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said Wednesday no one has begun working on a specific lawsuit, but she and other people from groups including the Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Breathe Utah and HEAL Utah have been discussing the possibility with lawyers.
"We're talking about it, but there's nothing to litigate over yet because the harm hasn't been inflicted yet," she said.3 comments on this story
In response to Biskupski's indications of an impending lawsuit, Derek Miller, chairman of the inland port board and Salt Lake Chamber president, said in a text message Wednesday, "The legal issues around the inland port board will continue to be decided by lawyers."
"The political battles around the inland port have been and will continue to be fought by politicians," he continued. "The job of the port board is to move forward responsibly and expeditiously to build an inland port that will benefit the community and the state. It is a job the board takes seriously and which we will do to the best of our ability."
The port board's next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m., at the state Capitol.