Council wants more time to consider RDA changes

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Rendering of the Northwest Pipeline Development as would be seen from 200 South. The pipeline project was launced under Department of Community and Economic Development. Image courtesy Salt Lake City.

Members of the Salt Lake City Council are not ready to approve proposed changes to the structure of the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake.  Salt Lake Mayor, Jackie Biskupski’s office is requesting that the mayor take on the title of RDA Executive Director, a position historically held by mayoral appointees.

The council, acting as the RDA board of directors, decided against approving the changes during Tuesday’s RDA board meeting.  The board requested an official staff report and more time to evaluate the impact of the mayor’s request on potential increased staffing needs, the budget and the separation of powers.

The title of RDA Executive Director was most previously held by DJ Baxter, who took the position under former mayor Rocky Anderson in 2007 and was retained by former mayor Ralph Becker.  Baxter was one of several employees to submit requested resignation letters to the Mayor’s office, which the mayor accepted in January.

According to the mayor’s legal counsel under the proposed changes, while Biskupski would have the title of Executive Director, a chief administrator would run the RDA under the mayor’s guidance.  The change in title is an attempt to comply with a new state law and is part of the mayor’s plans to integrate the RDA with the newly created Department of Economic Development, which is managed exclusively by the mayor’s office.

The mayor repeatedly alluded to concerns that the public would perceive the proposed changes as her office making government larger.

“I want the public to be aware that the way this will be structured will not facilitate the need for extra staff,” said Biskupski.

The mayor’s references to the public caused council members Lisa Adams and Erin Mendenhall to seek clarification from the mayor on what she meant in addressing the public during the RDA meeting.

“If you want to make a point to the media please direct it at the media and not this body,” said Mendenhall. “How are we going to explore how we keep things the same or change things when right now it doesn’t seem collaborative.”

Council member Stan Penfold reminded the board that the next year’s budget doesn’t need to be approved until June.  Penfold expressed support in the direction of the changes but felt that more information was needed before making a final decision.  Other council members echoed that sentiment.

“We don’t know what this will look and feel like,” said Mendenhall

It is unclear how the changes in management of the RDA would affect how the RDA currently operates. Under the current system, RDA staff recommend and research projects, then go before the Redevelopment Advisory Committee for initial approval.  Projects then go to the RDA Board of Directors for final approval.  

According to city attorney, Katie Lewis, the changes will be needed to the RDA bylaws to avoid overlap and potential conflicts with state law.

The mayor announced in February a national search for a director of the Department of Economic Development.  Under previous administrations economic development was part of the Department of Community and Economic Development which, like the RDA, leads public/private partnerships in redevelopment projects in the city through the Housing and Neighborhood Development (HAND) division of the department.

Council member Derek Kitchen expressed support for complying with state law.  But Kitchen expressed concern about moving forward with the RDA changes while the economic development director position remains vacant.  He also argued that the continued uncertainty is creating low RDA staff morale.

In the meantime, council members will have a month to research the proposed changes to the RDA, before May’s Board of Director’s meeting.

About Isaac Riddle 594 Articles
Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.