A historic council chamber. Mayor’s question time. And colorful, sometimes impassioned public commenters. These are the hallmarks of Salt Lake City’s council meetings that Council Member Charlie Luke walks us through.
Q: There is an aspect of your meetings that we don’t find in too many American councils: “questions to the mayor.” Why does this happen in your meetings?
A: Tradition. I don’t know when that practice started. It’s been rather hit and miss with mayors actually attending. A lot of times when they are there, we’re just happy that they are there. We’ve just been following the tradition.
Q: At the mayor’s question time of September 18, 2018, council members were upset that the mayor was not present to answer questions about the controversial Inland Port. Isn’t it unfair to say that the mayor doesn’t show up to answer questions when in fact your council oftentimes has nothing to ask her?
A: Absolutely not because most of our questions are going to be related to the items at hand. Especially when there is an issue where there is substantial council disagreement with the administration, there would have been questions for the mayor. That’s where a lot of the frustration was.
Q: So would it not be more realistic for the mayor to show up to the contentious issues, where maybe council members have given her a heads-up in advance that there will be questions, rather than expect her to come to every meeting just out of tradition and sit through silence while no one asks her anything?
A: We have roughly three formal meetings a month. In my opinion, it is not unreasonable for the mayor to attend those meetings. If we were having multiple meetings a week, I think your point would be valid. I don’t think it is asking too much for the mayor of the capital city of Utah to take an hour out of her agenda to sit through our meeting.
Q: One year ago, your fellow council members–and you especially–were all set to fund 50 new police officers for Salt Lake City. Would you briefly explain why you wanted those extra cops while I go back to the car and run your license?
A: The response times for non-emergency crimes have been increasing steadily over the past few years. We knew that what we were tasking them [police] with was unsustainable. If we were going to get those response times down, the only way we could do it would be to add more officers.
Q: For half a year, there was an extraordinary amount of people–mostly young, but not always; mostly black and latino, but not always–who spoke up meeting after meeting against the police officers. Their message to you was that A.) more cops don’t mean better safety, B.) we and our communities actually don’t feel safe around police, and C.) you, the all-white city council, have a distorted experience with police that is not our reality. Your reaction to that is what?
A: Nationally, there have been issues with police and racial issues around the country. In the seven years I’ve been on council, we’ve worked closely with the police chief to better train our officers to deal with de-escalation. I’m not discounting what any of them have said. My life experience as a middle-aged white male is much, much different from people of color, women, and others. I’m not ever going to discount what they’re saying. But I am going to go off of numbers and what we’re looking for as a city.
Q: I don’t think that any of the commenters ever said explicitly that this increase in officers was emblematic of racism or white supremacy. But the message clearly was, “the city uses the police to intimidate and in some cases kill us.” I know that you strongly support the additional officers, but can you think of anything that would have to happen with the police in Salt Lake City for you to believe the argument they were making?
A: It’s not that I don’t believe the argument. I do believe that there is legitimate fear and concern. All I can do is try to improve the situation. I can’t go back and fix things that have historically happened. Since we do have to have law enforcement, let’s make them as best-trained as they can possibly be.
Follow Council Member Charlie Luke on Twitter: @CharlieLukeSLC