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Olympic Poker, Part I

Why won’t the government fold its case against Welch and Johnson?



It was like the last straw for City Councilwoman Nancy Saxton, she was so dang miffed. Some newspaper reporter had called her about the pending appointment of Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency Director. What did the redevelopment board (City Council) think of him? Was he going to sail through the process, or what?

It was the million-dollar question, but Saxton couldn’t exactly call a friend for the answer. Because Saxton, the councilwoman who chairs the RDA, hasn’t got a lot of friends in the administration of Mayor Rocky Anderson.

“It’s just the pre-emptedness of it all,” huffs Saxton. “The administration had decided on a director, and we didn’t know his name, where he was from, his background—nothing.”

In the power politics of redevelopment, it’s all about who makes the decisions. Clearly, it wasn’t Saxton. And obviously, Saxton wants that changed so that she and the RDA have a piece of the action.

This year promises a title bout between Saxton and Anderson over redevelopment, the cornerstone of Anderson’s administration and the towering inferno of Saxton’s central city district.

Saxton became chairwoman of the RDA when Anderson was messing with the Brooks Arcade deal. The whole thing had angered the City Council because they’d already negotiated a renovation of the aging and vacant structure on their own. Anderson, however, didn’t like the council sidestepping an open bid process, and so he threw everything out and started over. Like he does when he doesn’t like something.

“We had an RDA director at the time,” says Saxton. “Negotiations were going on with the now-property owners, but the mayor was negotiating the contract with AlphaGraphics. I was intrigued as to why he was doing the negotiating when we had a director. Everybody just kind of shrugged their shoulders.”

The “well-he’s-the-mayor” answer didn’t set well for Saxton—at all. And she kind of stewed about it right up until the time that reporter called her. “I said, you obviously know more than I do. I don’t have any information,” says Saxton, just a little on the bristly side. And she bristled right into the RDA bylaws.

Saxton says she really just wanted a seat at the table, but she’d been told to butt out from the start. Why, the RDA wasn’t even allowed to read over the applications for their own director.

“We decided to look at the bylaws and raise questions, and out of that came many more ideas than what we initially had considered,” Saxton says.

What they’d initially considered was a palace coup, by the books. Saxton read those bylaws really carefully and asked her colleagues if they realized the guidelines for the RDA were totally in their hands. She formed a sub-committee to look at the guidelines and put the mayor in his place. Suddenly, they were looking at a lot of very drastic changes. “Not just tweaking the status quo,” she says. They were looking at fiduciary responsibilities, hiring and firing powers and a whole new chain of command with them at the top.

“There’s a real conflict there,” says Saxton. “A real schizophrenic message as to whose vision they need to follow and who they need to answer to. We are the RDA board; it is our responsibility and it is silly to give all that away when we are extremely able to set policy direction.”

For the Anderson administration this is huge. It’s about the balance of power, or lack of it. It’s about a meeting of visions.

“Those comprehensive visions on how to link land use, transportation and through them, improve not only the environmental quality, but the quality of life, are his visions which have drawn people like me into public service,” says city Planning Director Stephen Goldsmith.

It’s the RDA’s vision that’s weird, says Goldsmith. In the case of Sugar House, for instance, he calls the RDA’s approach cataclysmic. Planners had to push the RDA into major re-designs there.

Saxton says that, frankly, she doesn’t know what the mayor’s vision for redevelopment is. This, despite his talking, talking, talking about it.

But her biggest beef is in her own district. She doesn’t like Anderson’s green space plans for Library Square, which she’s holding up in exchange for a Central City Master Plan. That’s a cost of delay, according to Goldsmith, of $250,000 to $500,000.

Goldsmith says he’s the one who tossed a plan that had been in the works for seven years. “We abandoned it wholesale several years ago because of poor quality work,” he says. “The central community deserves a better plan than this.”

This is not the sort of comment that can salve Saxton, who’s ready to wrest control from Anderson. And it looks like she could do it.

“There’s a philosophical difference on the benefits of money and how we want RDAs used,” says Saxton.

Right now, Anderson acts as the RDA’s chief administrative officer, but the bylaws apparently indicate that the RDA can appoint anyone to that position—the director or even a council member.

“The CAO should be sympatico with the board—or at least open to discussion,” says Saxton. “The mayor said it’s harder to work for seven members than one—and that’s the point I really got. He does work for us.”

Now the bell rings, Saxton and Anderson come out of their corners. The gloves are off.