SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – When Salt Lake City’s Mayor Erin Mendenhall was first sworn into office last year on January 6th, her priorities would be tackling the city’s air quality, the homeless crisis, and the Inland Port. But those issues had to take a back seat with what 2020 had in store with the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and civil unrest.
Mayor Mendenhall faced more in her first year in office than some mayors may have in their entire careers. On the one year anniversary of her inauguration, she joined ABC4 News on Wednesday to reflect back at her first year in office.
“If I could talk to my younger self one year ago, I’d tell her to get comfortable with the unknown. The volatility of the world and society has been on clear display. But so has the natural environment,” she said. “What I’ve seen is the tenacity of the people of Salt Lake City and the State of Utah to help each other, to keep going, to evolve, and do it better. I’d tell her to keep breathing, trust your team, get up every day with that love in your heart for Salt Lake City.”
On March 6th, former Governor Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency in the state after the Utah Department of Health confirmed that a former passenger on the Grand Princess cruise ship was the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in Utah.
Over the next few weeks and months, events that would normally have mass gatherings were postponed or cancelled. Colleges, universities, and schools moved their classes online. Utah’s healthcare systems launched COVID-19 testing locations. Restaurants shut down their dining areas and resorted to takeout only. Businesses that required close person-to-person temporarily halted services and appointments.
While state and health leaders made recommendations and provided some guidance to individual municipalities on what to enforce and mandate in regards to COVID-19 safety precautions, they left the decision-making to each county and city. Mayor Mendenhall said the challenges for Utah’s cities was that no city in the state had its own public health professionals, only counties and the state did.
“It has been difficult to navigate a pandemic without that skill set in our wheelhouse. But what we do have is the capital city, its incredible community relationships, small businesses and economic relationship at a broad level that works with us. We have some of the best public servants in the nation working right here in our capital city so we were able to get up and go,” she said.
Mayor Mendenhall pointed out the city put $1.1 million in their small business community before the federal administration was able to get any money out to the public. City employees who were exposed to COVID-19 or needed to take care of a family member or child were paid while taking that time off.
Additionally, she said they worked with the city’s staff to revise the way they work on a day-to-day basis so that they didn’t have to stop their services. Even on the day of the 5.7 magnitude earthquake that originated in Magna, she said all of the garbage was still picked up within the city by the end of the day.
“There were a lot of wins when we look back on what we might have done differently. I think we would’ve pushed harder on the outset on the state to rely on the hard data, which they eventually transitioned to in September. But not to go with the red, orange, yellow phase that went too much into the decision-making when we should’ve been relying on that data,” said Mayor Mendenhall.
Civil unrest and addressing systemic racism
In May, protests and riots erupted all over the country, including in Utah, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On May 30th, both peaceful and non-peaceful demonstrators took over downtown Salt Lake City, closing down businesses and streets in the area. Non-peaceful demonstrators destroyed, vandalized, and defaced city and private property, including burning down an SLCPD vehicle.
“Those days, weeks, and months following George Floyd’s killing brought our nation to a boiling point where the 400+ years of racism and oppression persisted in our city streets. As a capital city, we’ve long hosted and even cherished the fact that this is Utah’s front yard. This is where people to exercise their first amendment rights and gather and protest for as long as we’ve been here. That’s something we hold dear,” said Mayor Mendenhall.
She went on to say, “It was a tragedy that on that particular day, years after peaceful protests against inequity that it was co-opted and turned into chaos by people who clearly had other motives at play and had nothing to do with George Floyd.”
At one point in time during the civil unrest, SLCPD urged Mayor Mendenhall and her family to stay at an undisclosed location out of the city for a few days due to death threats she was receiving. She said what kept her going during difficult times like these, were the positive moments with the residents of Salt Lake City.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of good, believe it or not, in the year of 2020 in terms of the community support, altruism of neighbors supporting neighbors, and a lot of kind, honest people reaching out to lend the support to me and my family. That’s what I stay focused on.”
She added, “I know from being on the city council for six years what that public discourse can look like. I really believe that in every exchange and piece of feedback is something I need to hear and so even when it’s really difficult, whatever that might be, I try to look at what that concern was and see what I can do to help. That’s what public service needs to do. Stop turning away from the vitriol and discounting it.”
In June, Mayor Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council established a Commission on Racial Equity in Policing and enacted a new police body camera footage ordinance. That same month, multiple state and city leaders including Mayor Mendenhall called for a thorough, transparent, and swift investigation in the Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal shooting. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill eventually ruled the shooting justified and cleared all the officers involved.
In August, Mayor Mendenhall and SLCPD Chief Mike Brown announced a series of reforms to the police department’s use of force, body-worn camera, and search and seizure politics. She signed an executive order for Chief Brown to enact those policies within a month.
However, Mayor Mendenhall said that tackling systemic racism that has built over centuries will require the city to address much more than just police reform.
“This was an example of the opening in our community and other communities across the nation, to finally confront and be in a reconcile of this inequity that has pervaded. Cities have an incredible amount of tools in our hands to change and make right what is not there. That’s from housing, zoning, access to fresh food and transportation, childcare access, investment by the city in the community, access of those community members to capital. It’s about growing our tables in city halls so more voices and representation can be there.”
Destructive wind storm
On September 8th, a hurricane-force windstorm hit the State of Utah, with the highest gust reported at about 100 miles per hour. The damage caused nearly 200,000 homes to lose power and toppled thousands of trees, prompting Governor Herbert to call the Utah National Guard for a storm in the first time in nine years. One man died after the cab door of his semi-truck struck him and knocked him over that day.
Mayor Mendenhall said in Salt Lake City alone, more than 3,000 trees were taken out with half being public trees. After the wind storm, the city created a program called ReTree SLC that accepts public donations to help with replating 1,500 public trees that were lost.
“It’s heartbreaking, especially for a tree-lover like myself who committed on the campaign trail to plant 1,000 EXTRA trees on SLC’s west side. But we were able to achieve that,” she said. “It was a tragic day, especially to see that some of our largest trees were taken out.”
Homeless crisis and affordable housing
Salt Lake City’s homeless crisis remained top of mind during the pandemic, with local shelters grappling with how to respond to the unsheltered community’s needs while keeping that population safe during COVID-19.
After Mayor Mendenhall released her 12-week plan to improve conditions for the city’s unsheltered population, dozens of community members took to the city council’s meeting on September 15th to express their concerns about the camp abatements. Critics called it cruel for the health department to conduct these clean-ups in the winter during a pandemic.
She then took to social media to reassure concerned community members that: Unsheltered community members will receive advanced notice of a cleaning event; Outreach and available services would be offered to campers; No one would be moved without having a place to go; Crews would only clear items that were abandoned or posed a health risk; and no citations would be issued to campers who are part of the clean-up.
Meanwhile, the Pioneer Park Coalition said that enabling street camping is not compassionate because those living on the streets are more likely to experience sexual assault. Additionally, the coalition argued the camps pose a public health hazard with garbage and used syringes that are sometimes found during these clean-ups.
Some advocates and unsheltered individuals told ABC4 News that they don’t want to go to shelters for a multitude of reasons, including the fear of contracting COVID in close living areas, being separated from their spouse or pet, lack of trust in officials, etc.
“There needs to be more resources. There needs to be more shelter beds. There needs to be greater planning for winter shelter and there needs to be more Utah leaders stepping up to this table and conversation. This is not a single city’s issue, although as the nexus of services which the capital city has been and will continue to be, we end up concentrating homeless individuals throughout the state and region right here in SLC. We have too many cities and counties turn their backs and not offer assistance where they should.”
The issue also lead into the conversation about affordable housing. Areas in Salt Lake City such as Glendale, Rosepark, Ballpark, and Poplar Grove that were previously affordable are not anymore with competitive real estate prices. Mayor Mendenhall said the city has committed sales tax revenue to invest with private partners in getting more affordable housing out of the private market that is growing throughout the State of Utah.
However, she pointed out that the city needs to have a diversity of housing types such as tiny homes and that it is not focused on building single family homes because there isn’t the land for it.
“Salt Lake City needs, wants, and is committing resources over the last several years, on-going revenue to building affordable housing because we know healthy, successful communities are diverse communities. When our work force, our firefighters, our police officers, our teachers can’t afford to live in the city they work in, that’s not a health community.”
Air quality and what lies ahead for 2021
So back to the Mayor Mendenhall’s original focus of air quality and the Inland Port before the chaos of 2020 took shape. If there was anything that Salt Lake City could take away from this past year, she believes it’s the reckoning that many residents could work from home productivity and reduce that carbon footprint.
“As we talked to our employees about ‘going back,’ no one really wants to go back to work the way it was. We saw productivity remain high and quality of life become higher. I think the opportunity for us as an individual corporation, but also as we work with the rest of the economy around the city and the state, is to recognize what we have gained in the ability to telework and keep our air clear especially when we know the inversion is coming,” she said.
The city also announced the construction of a major solar project that will get 90 percent of SLC Corporation’s energy transition to renewable by 2023.
Looking ahead to the second year of her term, Mayor Mendenhall said they still plan on focusing on the three pillars identified at the beginning of her tenure which are focusing on how residents can benefit from the growth in the city, environmental resiliency, as well as how to improve the equity and inclusion in the city.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall will deliver her State of the City address in a few weeks.
To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Mayor Mendenhall, click on the video at the top of the article.
Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.