SALT LAKE CITY — It was in the middle of a public presentation during last week's Utah Inland Port Authority board meeting when two board members began whispering.
The port board's chairman, Derek Miller, and Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers can be heard on the public audio recording of Wednesday's meeting discussing in hushed voices the possibility of one of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's mayoral challengers getting involved in ongoing negotiations over the inland port.
"Can you imagine how crazy Jackie would get if Jim Dabakis stepped in and said, you know, … 'I used to be at the Legislature, and I like to work with the City Council, and I know the mayor won't, but I'd like to see if we can't get these things resolved,'" Miller, who is also the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, can be heard whispering on the recording.
Rogers, one of only two board members representing Salt Lake City on the 11-member board, can be heard replying: "The problem is, I think some council members would freak out."
Parts of the discussion are inaudible, but Miller can be heard saying, "I'm going to say something to Jim." And Rogers at one point says, "That's a great idea."
Biskupski called the whispers "politically disgusting" and evidence of a "good old boy" network. Inland port critic and former Councilwoman Deeda Seed said the discussion shows a dark, political underbelly of the Utah Inland Port Authority.
The discussion was captured on an audio recording, filed on the state's public notice website, of the Utah Inland Port Authority's public meeting last week.
It comes on the heels of a bill filed last week that would expand the Utah Inland Port Authority's reach outside of its already 16,000-acre jurisdiction in west Salt Lake City so other communities could partner with the port authority. The bill also includes a provision that would prohibit any city from bringing a lawsuit against the port.
The issue has again divided Biskupski and Salt Lake City Council leaders, who have indicated concerns with the bill but expressed intentions to continue negotiations with state leaders on the bill. Biskupski, on the other hand, called it "yet another power grab" from the state, and is standing firm on her position not to negotiate on a bill that she says is "designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature's will."
That chasm between Biskupski and the City Council ripped deeper Monday after the recording came to light, brought to the Deseret News by Seed, one of the port authority's loudest critics and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"This is another example of the machinations, backroom dealmaking and political power plays that have characterized the proposed port from the beginning," Seed said. "And it’s an example of why the public doesn’t trust this process.
"Why should we when the only City Council member on the board is conspiring with the board chair/CEO of our city’s Chamber of Commerce to provoke our mayor regarding her principled stand on pending legislation that will harm our city’s interests?" Seed continued.
It appears, Seed said, that Miller and Rogers were "conspiring to engage" Dabakis — a former state senator who has announced a campaign to challenge Biskupski for mayor this year — in "upsetting" Biskupski over of the new bill.
No political ploy
Miller and Rogers, when asked Monday about the conversation, told the Deseret News that "conspiring" was not the aim or context of the conversation — rather they were generally discussing whether Biskupski would "engage" in conversations about the bill.
"If there is anything I would like to 'provoke' the mayor to do — to encourage the mayor to do — is get involved in the process with the Legislature in trying to resolve some of the concerns that Salt Lake City has with this bill," Miller said. "That's what I would like to encourage her to do."
Miller added: "That was the context of the conversation: whether or not she would get engaged. I hope she will."
When asked why he named Dabakis in the conversation, Miller said the conversation was about "whether or not he or any of the other candidates would use this as an opportunity to get engaged."
"I used Jim’s name specifically because he did it last year, when the city or the mayor's office couldn’t seem to come to a resolution with the Legislature on the special session," Miller said. "Jim Dabakis stepped in as a former member of the Legislature, and I wondered if he was going to do the same again this year."
Miller said he knew the mics were on, but he and Rogers talked quietly as to not disrupt Wednesday's meeting. Miller and Rogers said they began talking during the meeting after Rogers showed Miller Biskupski's comments indicating that she did not intend to continue negotiations with state leaders on the bill.
Miller stood by his comments, saying he didn't see it problematic that they could be heard on a public record.
"It's not a secret that I want to see these issues get resolved," Miller said. "I've got no problem with my comment and my question and am standing by it."
Rogers, when told about Seed's comments, audibly laughed and remarked, "That's hilarious."
"It wasn't even about that," Rogers said. "It had nothing to do with Jackie. The conversation was, you know that Jim Dabakis — for me — Jim had done this before, and I said that to him. Derek has nothing to gain by any of this. That's why it's funny he's being thrown under the bus like this."
Asked to clarify what the conversation was about, Rogers said he's "sorry it's turned political like this, but this has nothing to do with Jackie Biskupski. This has nothing to do with anything but trying to create a positive outcome on a bill that really looks like it was going to damage Salt Lake City."
However, Rogers did note he is "100 percent" a supporter for Dabakis as mayor, calling him his "go-to guy whenever I have a problem or an issue."
"As a mayor of Salt Lake City, (Dabakis) would never ever allow himself to not be at the table for Salt Lake City," Rogers said. "It's not to be political or anything, I just feel like you need a mayor in Salt Lake City that is actually going to step up at the table and make their voice heard, not somebody who digs their heels in."
Biskupski, after reviewing the recording, told the Deseret News the discussion between Miller and Rogers was "disturbing" and "politically disgusting."
"Here you have one of two voices on this whole inland port board who is supposed to be looking out for the best interest of the city and instead is trying to figure out how to get a mayor in position who actually supported the port," Biskupski said, noting Dabakis voted for last year's special session compromise between the City Council and the state.
"I am and will always be on the side of the residents of this community when it comes to this port because of the way it's being done," the mayor added. "You have land grabs, you have municipal authority grabs, you have tax grabs, and now they want more taxes out of our community."
The mayor continued:
"At the end of the day, the whole thing is so politically disgusting, I think the last time we saw anything like this was during the 2002 Olympics where the politics and the corruption were so heavy," she said. "This is why people are so disgusted by our political system. This good old boy network stuff is and has been our biggest problem in politics."
Dabakis, also reached Monday, told the Deseret News he had no knowledge of the conversation between Miller and Rogers, saying, "I can't be responsible for what two people are saying." But he did say he hasn't heard of or been a part of "any plan" with the City Council on port negotiations or to use the port to politically maneuver against Biskupski.
What Dabakis did emphasize, however, is his desire to unite the mayor and the City Council on the inland port controversy.
"It's really important that the mayor and the City Council and the legislative representatives for Salt Lake City all speak with one voice," he said.
While Dabakis voted in favor of the "compromise" special session legislation between the City Council and state leaders last summer, Dabakis voted against creating the port authority during the 2018 general session. He said what the state did was "an outrage" and "I'm still reeling from the consequences" of it.
"I just want to make clear that if their goal is to have me collude with them in hurting the city, that is not (my intention)," Dabakis said. "I stand together with the mayor and the council in making the state responsible for its bad choices."
But Biskupski pointed out Dabakis ultimately supported the compromise legislation, and "at the end of the day, for whatever reason, (Miller) and Rogers believe he's the guy to help them get this done, and we can't lose sight of that."
Rogers and Miller insist that wasn't the intention of the conversation, and anything assumed otherwise would be taking their words out of context.
But Rogers did acknowledge he and Biskupski do not see eye to eye and he supports Dabakis politically.
"Do (Biskupski) and I get along? Absolutely not," Rogers acknowledged. "Does she and I agree on this inland port? Absolutely not. Do I think she's failed at this? Absolutely," he said. "Here's an individual who time and time again has failed at her position as the administrative authority in Salt Lake City and won't come to the table."
Whether "people like it or not," Rogers said, "you have to establish relationships up on the Hill" and yet "Jackie doesn't have a working relationship."
Rogers also pointed out that Seed has "never called me once" and "all she does is negative negative negative," noting "she gets paid to do that."
Biskupski, on the other hand, said even "setting aside my re-election," political dealings surrounding the inland port do not represent Salt Lake City.
"This is not who we are," she said. "We don't sell out on the things we care about the most. … We do the battle because it matters, not only here but to the rest of the state. That's who we are."
Conflict of interest?
Biskupski also questioned the City Council's decision-making on the inland port over the past year. She pointed out the council's executive director, Cindy Gust-Jenson, has an uncle who owns business property within the inland port's jurisdiction, and she questioned whether the council is getting unbiased policy advice from Jenson if she has a family member who could potentially stand to benefit from the port's development.
"The chink in the armor on this one issue is Cindy Gust-Jenson, who is driving them and guides them on most things and guiding them on a journey they feel like they have no other path," Biskupski said.
Jenson's uncle, John Gust, owns Arbor Utah, which has office space in Magna.
Reached Monday, Gust-Jenson said she was "shocked" to hear the mayor questioning her ethics, saying she's been "obsessed with transparency" over the past 30 years she's worked at the city. She also said her uncle's business is "the farthest thing from my mind," and she hasn't let it influence her work with the council.
"It wouldn't occur to me in a million years to do what she's suggesting," Gust-Jenson said, also noting she doesn't give policy "direction" to the council, only offers policy "options."
"It's insulting to them that anyone would consider I'm doing anything like that," Gust-Jenson said, adding: "If there is an effort to discredit me, bring it on because I am proud."22 comments on this story
Rogers also came to Gust-Jenson's defense, calling her "the most ethical individual I have ever met" who "does nothing but try and benefit the city and make the city a winner." He called Biskupski's concerns "a shame" and "the furthest thing from the truth I have ever heard."
"We have someone who has devoted her entire life to public service in Salt Lake City, and we have a mayor who's been here for thee years and is already throwing that individual under the bus," Rogers said.
"This is just a spin by the mayor to try and make herself look good and what she hasn't done in the city."