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.

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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

#165: American Fork, UT 7/31/18

“The city is considering a three-month, temporary land use restriction,” Mayor Brad Frost announced sternly as the first order of business. His microphone was off, but his voice carried through the intimate and ornate meeting space.

“The city will not be accepting new development plans or requests for zoning modifications.”

If you want to rile up a town, nothing does it better than talking about people’s land. Surely enough, a strange but emotional scene slowly unfolded before the council in which one family, member by member, stood up with a single message: get off my lawn.

“What gives anybody the right to decide what’s on my property?” pleaded a gray-haired woman. “I own it. We have no interest in selling this. Ever. It’s a family farm. Please, I would ask that you take us out of the T.O.D. [transit-oriented development area].”

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Lock the doors! Don’t let her leave.

She was replaced by her husband, who stood uneasily as a dozen onlookers stared at his back.

“I’m not very comfortable doing this. But I’m going to because I feel so strongly about it,” he admitted.

“We do not want to sell or develop–at least not in my lifetime and certainly not in my kids’ lifetime. And it’s looking like not in the grandkids’ lifetime.”

Councilmember Clark Taylor fidgeted with his ring. The mayor folded his hands in front of him on the desk. The commenter sighed loudly into the microphone.

“If we could, we’d like to leave the city. We get nothing from the city. No sewer. No water. We don’t even get police protection. We never wanted to be part of the city. We were talked into it by the late mayor.”

He gazed into council members’ eyes and nodded to his wife.

“She grew up there watching her grandparents crawl up and down row crops on their hands and knees. Our kids have grown up there. This is home. It’s not just a piece of property.”

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This story is more American than a baseball bat eating apple pie.

As the man turned on his heels and returned to a chair, Mayor Frost tugged on his microphone.

“I appreciate the decorum. I really do. You haven’t yelled or screamed, but we get your message and I appreciate it,” he said thankfully as the rest of the family–the daughter and the grandson–stepped forward.

“I’m fifth generation that’s lived on the farm. He’s sixth generation,” she said, clapping a hand on her son’s shoulder. “I have no desire to sell ever.”

With this family seemingly committed to guarding their compound to the death–and no one in the government itching to call for a raid by the National Guard–the council segued into other business. Although for a moment, it didn’t seem as if the theme had changed all that much.

“It was really one of those moments where you can say I’m proud to live in American Fork and I’m proud to live in America,” Mayor Frost recalled. “This last Saturday night, we welcomed home a soldier deployed to the Middle East. It was put out on Facebook and boy, did our citizens catch ahold of that!”

His voice was low and measured as he told of the heartwarming scene. “We ushered him in with emergency vehicles, and along Main Street people were holding flags. When he got home, there was 200 flags in his neighborhood. It was really special.”

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This story is even more American than the last one!

The lesson here? A city is not just a collection of property. It’s a home. And I think the farm family would approve of that message.

Month in Review: October 2017

October is an exciting month because you can always count on at least one city council to really get into the Halloween spirit. Sure enough, Wisconsin delivered. But there were plenty of other highlights, including a sudden competition between two cupcakeries and a mayoral field trip that I may have been invited to.

The podcast was also busy, as we heard from a former Scottish Highland dancer, a city manager who remembered the ejection of one council member, and a robot-heavy episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. Look at the highlights in our October Month in Review.

And if you still aren’t convinced that last month was any different from the other 11 months of the year, THIS wizard-priest will cast a spell on you:

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#138: Ogden, UT 10/24/17

“This is the 6 p.m. meeting,” Ogden council Chair Marcia White stated, brazenly defying the clock in front of her which read “5:59.” It’s refreshing to see someone so eager to begin a council meeting (either that or it really was six o’clock and this timepiece was spreading Fake News).

Council Vice Chair Richard Hyer scanned the audience. “It’s my pleasure,” he said, his eyes settling on a target in the crowd, “to announce that we’re going to have our Ogden/Weber Convention & Visitor’s Bureau director lead us in the pledge today.”

The randomly-selected lady rose to the occasion literally, as people stood with her and flawlessly recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Sitting back down, White grinned and shot a glance at the vice chair.

“That’s kind of mean that you put them on the spot. THAT’S when you forget the pledge!” she observed with a chuckle. “It’s like, ‘ah! I’ve said it all my life.'”

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It’s an impromptu patriotism test

Hyer defended his unorthodox method. “I didn’t ask her to sing the national anthem! I just asked her to say the pledge.” As the laughter subsided, he murmured to himself, “we should do that national anthem thing.”

Well, sir, I’m not sure where you can find the singers. But I DO know where you can find actors.

“Recognizing WNY Productions for their immense support of Ogden while filming the series ‘Youth and Consequences’ right here at Ogden High School,” Council Member Bart Blair read from a proclamation.

“We are eager to view the final cut” of the teen comedy/drama series, he added, coming to a YouTube channel near you.

“We have a little something for you, too,” one of the production team members responded.

A man pulled out a tiny plastic-wrapped notebook. “These are so you can keep track of your own stories. Maybe turn them into screenplays,” he encouraged the council. Aha–the vice chair can get a shot at his musical after all!

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“Ogden and the Amazing Technicolor Council Livestream”

Buddy, I’ll turn this entire council meeting review into a screenplay.

ENTER: SWASHBUCKLING MAYOR

All three of my daughters were extras in that. They had a 
blast.

ENTER: GIANT NINJA ROBOT

I'll show you a blast...with my laser cannon!

See, how hard is that? Oh, and the part about the mayor’s daughters being extras was real. The ninja robot? Well, you’ll have to check the tape.

“We have Halloween next week,” sighed Mayor Mike Caldwell. “I would just lobby to say I wish that was on a Friday or a Saturday.”

He smiled, picturing the ordeal that would await him after a long night of candy-harvesting. “Having young kids that get all sugared up, to have to turn them around and get them off their sugar hangover and get them back to school is kind of rough.”

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Send them to my house–I’m passing out kale and copies of The Old Testament.

Council Member Neil Garner also had a concerned message for the drivers. “Please, next Tuesday, be extremely careful. Watch out for the little trick-or-treaters.”

ENTER: GIANT NINJA ROBOT

With one hand, I shall deliver 
candy to your children. 
With the other hand, I shall 
karate chop your dangerous 
drivers. Hee-yah!

Final thoughts: Obviously, I give 50 out of 50 stars to the woman who seamlessly and confidently led the Pledge of Allegiance. May your sugar hangover be brief and mild.

Month in Review: July 2017

July was noteworthy for two reasons. First: it was Mayor’s Month! That’s right, we talked on the podcast to an unprecedented four mayors from three continents. What we heard was heartwarming in some cases and tear-jerking in others.

Second: this being July, of course we saw fireworks! Mostly they were of the verbal variety. But in one case, someone actually brandished a firework in a council meeting. If you don’t remember that moment, perhaps you should browse our July Month in Review page.

And if you’re still questioning whether July’s council meetings are worth a second look, at least find out why this woman is so g–d– happy:

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#39: West Valley City, UT 7/26/16

Maybe it was the summer heat or the moon in the Seventh House, but the 6:30 p.m. West Valley City council meeting felt more like an 8 a.m. college seminar: sleepy. The hypnotic monotone of Mayor Ron Bigelow certainly didn’t help.

“We turn to Councilmember Steve Vincent for our opening ceremony,” he murmured. “Opening ceremony” eh? Like the Olympics? By all means, bring out the drumline! Commence the light show! Sprint down the aisle with a flaming torch!

“I was trying to find something that I could present for Pioneer Day,” the councilmember teased us. “On my dad’s side of our family, when they came to New York, they didn’t have enough money to come west. So [my grandfather] laid telegraph line across the Plains to get to Utah.” (I’m getting the feeling that calling this an “opening ceremony” was a slight exaggeration.)

“He’d write stories about how they’d lay a few hundred yards of telegraph line and then the next morning they would have to redo it because they’d been torn down by Indians. Anyway, I think we all need to reflect on our pioneer heritage.”

Ah yes, what would an opening ceremony be without a little Indian sabotage?

Mayor Bigelow stared at his notes. “Was there anyone here who wanted to make public comments?” Pause. “Apparently not. A lot of comments, just not public,” he deadpanned.

“To our council, any comments tonight?” Crickets. “Nothing you wanna bring up? Oh-kay.” Imagine if Eeyore chugged a bottle of Nyquil and you’ve got Mayor Bigelow.

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“Does the cat who’s got your tongues wish to speak?”

Because everyone was so tight-lipped, the council sailed through the rest of the meeting as fast as the mayor could talk.

“We go to item 8–this is for the purchase of a data backup system. We have a lot of data we have to store. In fact, you can go out and listen to any of our council meetings.”

Well, I’ll be damned. Something I can get behind! Back up those council meetings, baby!

Next item: “We need to do it tonight,” warned the mayor about the “asphalt polymer treatment project.”

“It’s a polymer mastic seal to prevent oxidation of the asphalt oil from the water infiltration and ultraviolet exposure,” he explained in an impressive display of vocabulary. “In other words, so it doesn’t break up from the water and the sun, I guess is the way you would put that.” Actually, the way I would put that is “rubbing some lotion on the road,” but I’m a dummy.

With the road massaged and the data safe and sound, the council adjourned.

Final thoughts: For doing all the heavy lifting, I give 10 out of 10 stars to Councilmember Vincent’s telegraph-laying grandfather. Bravo, sir.

#12: Washington City, UT 4/27/16

Huge turnout at tiny Washington City’s council meeting! The good people of southwestern Utah filled the bleachers for one reason: the swearing in of their rugged new fire captain.

“I solemnly swear that I will support, obey, and defend the laws and ordinances of Washington City,” this hunky hero vowed.

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What a crowd!

A standing ovation erupted in the audience! Huzzahs flowed freely! And then…they all left. No doubt to serenade the town’s new beefcake with champagne and concubines. Speaking of which:

“Last Saturday we had our annual princess contest,” Mayor Ken Neilson reminded everyone. “Our princesses are currently helping out with the rodeo so they’re not able to be here.”

The celebrations kept on comin’: “On the 7th, annually we do a breakfast for the Iron Man as they come through Washington. I invite ya’ll to come help me flip some pancakes,” the mayor/chef announced.

“We better go get some candy,” a voice mumbled. “We gotta bribe the kids to like us somehow.”

“Denise can get some for you!” the mayor blurted, volunteering Denise for sugar duty.

Apparently, the city council had morphed into the party planning committee, for Councilwoman Kolene Granger had grandiose plans of Caligula-like proportions.

“I know that that they want to come and visit the council again,” she said of Dixie State University–the fightin’ Trailblazers. “I think we ought to get hats of some sort. In deference to the Rebels, the colors are gray, blue, and red.”

(Ah, yes. This year, Dixie State became the Trailblazers. They used to be the Rebels, but changed it because of cough, slavery, cough. Old mascot: racist Confederate soldier. New mascot: friendly bison!)

“I’m suggesting that we perhaps buy one of the bison and get it decorated and perhaps put city logos or city calendars on it. They’re fiberglass but kids can sit on them and we can color them the way we want,” Councilwoman Granger mused.

“I’ll put one in my front yard,” Councilman Troy Belliston chuckled. Send me one too, councilman. It’ll look great next my confederate general statue.

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Yes, who could forget the Civil War’s many bloody battles in Southwest Utah

Finally, the council had a meaty piece of business to chew on: the owner of 141 South Main Street wanted to weasel out of building a new sidewalk and gutter. Technically, the pesky rules say he has to. But no one else around him is doing it, sooooo…

“It’s gonna be sticking out there like a sore thumb,” the man sighed.

“I don’t have a problem waiving it today. But at the same time I worry because we’ve kind of waived so many that we’ve never started” building the danged gutters, Councilman Thad Seegmiller fretted.

“I agree,” the man countered with reverse-psychology jujitsu. “I have nothing against the curb and gutter. If you folks choose to have me put it in, I’ll put it in.”

Councilman Seegmiller folded like a lawn chair. “Well, mayor, I would like to see us get curb and gutter downtown, but there’s nobody with curb and gutter on his entire block.”

The honorable mayor agreed. “Don’t mess up the ditch!” he hollered. They voted to waive the curb and gutter.

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“Get your minds out of the gutter–specifically, my gutter.”

Final thoughts: With a new fire captain on duty, the council meeting was definitely not a barnburner.  I give this meeting 3 out of 5 fiberglass bison.