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Tom Smart, KSL, File

SLC mayor's office investigating after sprinklers turned on near homeless camp at The Leonardo

By Jacob Klopfenstein, | Updated - Feb. 28, 2020 at 12:42 p.m. | Posted - Feb. 28, 2020 at 12:09 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office is investigating an incident Friday morning when sprinklers were turned on near The Leonardo museum, possibly where a homeless encampment was located.

A museum spokeswoman said it was standard business practice and people camping in the area were given an hour and 15 minutes notice to move their belongings.

Sprinklers were running along 500 South in front of the museum Friday morning, Mendenhall tweeted Friday. That sprinkler system is not controlled by the city, but city officials intervened to shut the system off immediately and are investigating what happened, the mayor said.

Leonardo spokeswoman Havilah Clarke told that since the weather has been unseasonably warm, the sprinkler system requires regular maintenance. To maintain it, the facilities staff at the museum run the water for about 20 minutes to test the system.

About 8 a.m. Friday, museum facilities staffers went out to the lawn strip in front of the museum, Clarke said. They notified everyone in an encampment there that there would be a test of the water system and they needed to move their belongings and vacate the premises, she said.

Staffers went out again at 8:30 a.m. to notify anyone who had not moved yet, Clarke said. Five minutes later, the museum also reached out to Salt Lake police to help ask people to move, which is something the city has instructed the museum to do in such situations, she said.

The museum made a third announcement at 9 a.m., and they waited another 15 minutes before starting the test. Police arrived about 9 a.m. and stayed while the test was conducted.

A facilities worker went back to turn off the sprinklers at about 9:30 a.m. but found that the city had already turned the system off, Clarke said. It’s not clear why the city shut off the water. The city reached out to the museum about 9:45 a.m., she said.

Mendenhall’s version of events doesn’t quite match that timeline.

Mendenhall said she was driving to work along 500 South on Friday morning when she saw some police officers interacting with some people near the museum.

Then she saw the sprinklers turn on, Mendenhall continued. They stayed on while she got parked across the street at city hall, and she started texting her staff members to ask them to look into what was going on.

As of noon Friday, Mendenhall said city officials were still working with The Leonardo to figure out exactly what happened. City staffers were going to continue investigating and trying to find out how The Leonardo came to the decision to turn the sprinklers on.

The city is also going to review buildings on city property that are leased out to other tenants, such as The Leonardo, to make sure they're aware of the city's policies and expectations, Mendenhall said.

"We're going to take it a step further in examining what other buildings or properties the city has that are leased and communicate directly with those lessees that we will not tolerate, and it is not appropriate in any way, shape or form to turn sprinklers on people," she said.

The city's relationship with The Leonardo is complicated.

Last fall, the museum butted heads with former mayor Jackie Biskupski's administration over hundreds of thousands of dollars the city said the museum still owed.

The museum said they had answered the city's questions and proposed new plans for the museum to pay back past-due utility bills.

Museum staff also reached out to health officials Friday because they have been told that the health hazards associated with the waste left over from such an encampment can be exacerbated by water, Clarke said. It was believed no one got wet and that the majority of people had left and taken their belongings, she said.

Clarke did not have an estimate for how many people were in the encampment Friday morning. The number of people in encampments near the museum fluctuates from day to day, she said.

The museum is committed to fighting homelessness and has been heavily involved in such efforts, Clarke said.

“If anyone is committed to solving the homeless situation it’s The Leonardo,” Clarke said. “I believe that The Leonardo has always acted with empathy and compassion toward the people who are at our very doorstep.”

In a series of tweets, Mendenhall condemned turning sprinklers on when homeless people are nearby and said the city is engaging with multiple organizations to provide resources for homeless people.

“To be perfectly clear, Salt Lake City condemns turning sprinklers on where unsheltered individuals are present,” Mendenhall said. “It is inhumane and abhorrent.”

The Salt Lake City council echoed Mendenhall Friday.

“We fully support the Mayor and condemn inhumane actions toward our unsheltered neighbors,” the council said in a tweet.

Contributing: Kira Hoffelmeyer, KSL NewsRadio

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