Interview #121: Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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.

387631_158861697556245_975855060_n.jpg
Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke

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

#120: Salt Lake City, UT 7/25/17

Council Vice President Charlie Luke braced himself for the onslaught.

“We have one public hearing for tonight. The rules of decorum are as follows,” he announced heavily, scanning the room for troublemakers. “We try to make this an inclusive location for people who want to speak. We ask from the audience that there be no cheering, booing, jeering or any other outburst.”

He caught the eye of Council Member Erin Mendenhall and the two exchanged knowing smiles. “That would make it unpleasant for people to speak and to listen,” he added.

Luke glanced down at his notes. “I do not…see…any cards. Um, is anybody here to speak about the zoning map amendments?”

No one stirred in the audience. All that buildup for nothing!

slc.jpg
Sorry, Charlie.

But wait: it was the appointed hour for council members to grill the mayor with questions. Gentlemen, let the jeering begin.

“Mayor Biskupski is on her way,” observed Vice President Luke. He paused before gazing around the dais. “Are there questions for the mayor?” No response.

“I don’t think so,” he murmured.

This council meeting was as quiet as a Mormon Tabernacle singer with laryngitis. However, that all changed as a squadron of public commenters lined up with axes to grind.

“I got a notice regarding my property–stating my xeriscape is not adequate,” a woman brandished a packet of papers while simultaneously introducing me to the term “xeriscape.”

“I’m required to have one-third of the property covered in vegetation. We live in a DESERT,” she protested. “I think my yard is one of the most aesthetically-pleasing in the neighborhood!”

She was promptly replaced by a man with multiple arm tattoos and a furrowed brow.

“As I head to work, there’s a nice lovely billboard that screams that if you support panhandling, you support alcoholism. Anyone panhandling is a violent, thieving drunk.” He reeled back with eyes wide. “Anyone agree with that?!”

slc2.jpg
No

“I’ve started a petition to have these billboards removed. I’d rather be doing something else, but until these billboards are removed, I will continue coming here.”

He locked elbows on the podium and seemed at a loss for the proper words to express his exasperation.

“I don’t know what to say…these are…this is…this does not make sense to me.”

But his frustration was positively mild compared to the final commenter: a man with a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a strong distaste for the entire council.

“Can I ask y’all a question before my time starts? I tried to get an answer from the cronies down there,” he gestured dismissively to city employees.

slc3.jpg
Cronies? That’s a new one.

“You have police come usher the homeless away. Then you take their property. You turn around and stab ’em in the back. That’s hippocratic [sic],” he raged.

He proceeded to give council members the kind of roasting the mayor narrowly avoided earlier. “What about the terrorism going on at the homeless place? Some dude got a double lung puncture with a screwdriver. He bled out!”

“We do still, I guess, live in a democracy and not in the communist state like SOME of us would like to see. He shot a dirty look at Council Member Andrew Johnston.

“Why don’t you go to places like France, Germany, some Middle Eastern countries where they ARE progressive and you would fit right in!”

Well, I’m not sure the Middle East is “progressive,” but you can sure as heck xeriscape there.