Utah legislator questions Salt Lake City mayoral candidate's role on air quality board as 'politically motivated'

Utah legislator questions Salt Lake City mayoral candidate's role on air quality board as 'politically motivated'

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SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator supporting Sen. Luz Escamilla's campaign for Salt Lake City mayor took what could be seen as a political shot at one of Escamilla's opponents on the Senate floor Wednesday.

However, he said it didn't have anything to do with Escamilla's campaign — but rather concern for Utah's Air Quality Board.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, who has jokingly described himself as the "token Republican" among Escamilla's supporters, stood up on the Senate floor Wednesday to oppose Gov. Gary Herbert's appointment of Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall to the state's Air Quality Board — a position she's held since 2014.

Anderegg told his colleagues in general terms that he had "reservations" about Mendenhall's appointment in addition to concerns that there hadn't been a public hearing on the matter. But in an interview with KSL after the Senate's vote, Anderegg said he worried some of Mendenhall's recent actions as chairwoman on the Air Quality Board have been "politically motivated."

"My understanding of some of the actions taken against certain manufacturing and mining businesses in the state were done so with an apparent objective — less of meeting air quality standards and more of meeting political win-wins so Mrs. Mendenhall could run for other offices," Anderegg said.

More specifically, Anderegg said the Air Quality Board recently voted to take restrictive actions against Rio Tinto Kennecott even though he said the company was already moving away from coal, pointing to the mining company's announcement earlier this month it was shutting down its Utah Power Plant in Magna to move toward renewable energy.

The Air Quality Board in January, as part of adopting its state implementation plan (a plan to reduce air pollution), voted to only allow Kennecott's plant to use natural gas.

Anderegg accused Mendenhall of "leading a charge" in the Air Quality Board to "stick it" to Kennecott. However, Anderegg also said his worries were stemming from "hearsay," which is why the senator said he would have preferred to have a public hearing on the governor's appointee to hash out his concerns.

"The only thing I can surmise is (it was) because of political purposes," Anderegg said. "Apparently she wanted something to wave around … for whatever political ambitions she had. If that's true, then I would question whether or not the main purpose of her service on the board was really for air quality or if it was for other political purposes."

Ultimately, the Senate approved Mendenhall's appointment, along with others, though three lawmakers — Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City; Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton — joined Anderegg's no vote on Mendenhall and one other appointee that didn't get a public hearing.

Senators seldom vote against gubernatorial appointees, though it's not unheard of. The Senate must vote to confirm the governor's appointees to complete the advice and consent process under state law.

Mendenhall was surprised to hear about Anderegg's vote. She told the Deseret News she takes her role on the Air Quality Board "very seriously from a public health and environmental standpoint" and she hadn't heard of Anderegg's concerns before Wednesday.

"I think my record as an air quality advocate is longer than my political record, and I'm happy to talk through any of the actions I've made and continue to make as I serve on the Air Quality Board," Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall said Rio Tinto had not shared any of its intentions to close its Magna plant with the board "and we were excited and as surprised as the public to learn about the announcement they made to transition to a cleaner process," she said.

Mendenhall said it's "interesting" that Anderegg is "clearly" an Escamilla supporter. "It's unfortunate that it appears he may be politically motivated in pulling my name out," she said.

Anderegg said "everybody's going to have an opinion of why I was motivated to do it," but he simply wanted to know if Mendenhall was serving on the board for "the right reasons." Anderegg added his concerns surfaced well before Escamilla announced her candidacy.

Escamilla, when asked about Anderegg's vote on Thursday, said she voted in favor of Mendenhall's appointment and, as a Democrat, often disagrees with Anderegg on issues.

"Sen. Anderegg represents his constituency, his district, and so I by no means have any influence over that situation for him," Escamilla said.

"That's really not my style, anyways," Escamilla added. "That's not how I operate and has nothing to do with that."

Justin Harding, Herbert's chief of staff, said in a statement issued Thursday the governor and his administration "take serious any concerns about any of his appointees," but backed up Mendenhall's appointment, crediting her with compromise surrounding the Utah Inland Port.

"As the past chair of the Salt Lake City Council, Councilwoman Mendenhall gave great leadership to the inland port. Without her efforts, important changes would not have been enacted in the special session last spring," Harding said, adding the governor welcomes working with senators to address "any concerns they may have" with her appointment.

Mendenhall and Escamilla are among nine candidates vying to fill Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's seat when her term ends at the close of this year.

Other candidates are: former state Sen. Jim Dabakis; former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold; Christian Harrison, former Downtown Community Council chairman; businessman David Ibarra; David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition.

Aaron Johnson, a veteran, and Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, have also opened personal campaign committees.

The top two vote-getters will advance from the August primary to compete in November's general election.

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