On Dec. 13, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the seven council members stood before journalists and made an announcement impacting city residents and the entire state — the location of four new homeless shelters.
It was the culmination of… well, we aren’t sure what. Whatever process led to the announcement that day was closed to the public. It was only after the announcements that the city held public hearings on the chosen locations.
The entire matter was so opaque that the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has chosen to give a Black Hole Award to Biskupski and the City Council — James Rogers, Andrew Johnston, Stan Penfold, Derek Kitchen, Erin Mendenhall, Charlie Luke and Lisa Adams, in Districts 1 through 7, respectively.
The Black Hole is given to agencies or officials who show disregard for transparency in government. Utah law allows for the closing of government hearings and the sealing of government records when that government agency is seeking to purchase real estate. If Salt Lake City’s elected officials had confined their opacity to the parcels it was considering purchasing, The Headliners wouldn’t have considered them for the award.
But the city took a broad, secretive approach to deciding what to do for or about Salt Lake City’s homeless. Meetings discussing the shelters were closed to reporters. The city took public input on who should be on the committee selecting the sites and what criteria to consider, but nothing on where, in general terms, the shelters should be or what should go there with them.
There was no public discussion of the core of the city’s plan — closing the Road Home shelter and creating a net loss in beds for the homeless.
What’s more, the secrecy doesn’t seem to have benefited the taxpayers. The idea behind limiting information about government real estate shopping is to not create any additional demand for that property. Yet the city agreed to pay $7 million for parcels in Sugarhouse that the Salt Lake County Assessor’s Office says has a market value of $2.8 million. The city is to pay $3 million for a salvage yard near Smith’s Ballpark that has an assessed market value of $1 million.
Biskupski has received the brunt of criticism for those not happy with the shelter sites or the lack of a public process, but it needs to be noted that all the city council members went along with the secrecy.
Homelessness in Salt Lake City is not just an issue that affects Salt Lake City. The Utah Legislature last year allocated $9.2 million for the new shelters and services for the homeless, and is considering spending more this year. Three days after Salt Lake City’s announcement, the Standard-Examiner in Ogden published an editorial predicting that city’s homeless population would increase as a result of reducing beds in the state’s capital.
It’s not too late for Biskupski, Rogers, Johnston, Penfold, Kitchen, Mendenhall, Luke and Adams to do better. They should release minutes of all the closed meetings. As the city implements its new plan to help the homeless, it should research specific criteria for success, collect data measuring that criteria and regularly publish that data to city websites. Don’t make reporters file records requests for the data, please.
Above all, the mayor and city council — and politicians in other Utah cities pondering actions that impact their constituents — should pledge to never duplicate the opacity that shrouded the decisions about the Salt Lake City’s homeless shelters.
The Utah Headliners is the state’s largest chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Learn more about becoming a member.
NOTE: The Utah SPJ Headliners are hosting a regional journalism conference March 24-25. It’s only $25 for members and $35 for nonmembers. Get information and register now.