SALT LAKE CITY – The first Salt Lake City Council candidate has already kicked off campaign season in Utah's capital city while also jumping into new waters: Salt Lake City's first election using ranked-choice voting.
Blake Perez, former chairman of the Rose Park Community Council and current deputy director of the Central Wasatch Commission, announced his candidacy for the west-side City Council District 1 seat during a news conference held alongside the Jordan River on Friday.
"I believe we can rise together to address the challenges we face today, including unhealthy air quality, rising costs of living, improving public safety, and helping our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness," Perez said. "I believe this community can rise together to protect the things we love, like our diversity, our tree-lined streets and a healthy and bright future for our youth."
Councilman James Rogers, a two-term councilman who opted not to run for reelection this year, gave Perez his blessing, issuing a prepared statement through Perez's campaign.
"Blake and I have been able to work closely on improving transit access and clean air initiatives, and I think he would continue doing an excellent job representing our community in this expanded role," said Rogers, who has served on the City Council for almost eight years.
Rogers has also served as the council's pick on the Utah Inland Port Authority Board, a body tasked with steering the controversial development on about 16,000 acres of Salt Lake City's west side with the mission to maximize Utah's place in the global economy. The Legislature's creation of the port authority and whether it violated the state constitution, as city leaders contend, is currently being weighed by the Utah Supreme Court.
Perez told the Deseret News he's preparing himself to serve on that port authority board if the City Council chooses him as one of two council members representing west-side districts on the board.
Perez, who lives with his wife, Trina Perez, and their 3-year-old son, Bodhi, in Rose Park, is the first to announce his run for the seat being left vacant by Rogers.
He's also the first to begin navigating a new election process for Salt Lake City — one that won't include a primary election.
Salt Lake City's first ranked-choice election
The City Council last week voted 6-1, despite objections from Rogers, to approve ranked-choice voting for the November election while also eliminating the primary.
Also known as an instant runoff election, ranked-choice voting places all candidates who qualify on the ballot. Rather than selecting only one candidate, voters rank their candidates from their favorite to least favorite. If everyone's top candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, that candidate wins. Otherwise, it goes through a process of elimination in the counting process until one candidate has over 50%.
Each person seeking to become a candidate must file an official declaration of candidacy with the city recorder's office beginning Aug. 10 and ending Aug. 17. That formal filing period was moved back from the first week of June. Candidates, however, can begin campaigning as soon as they open an account with the city. The general election this year will be held on Nov. 2.
To qualify for the ballot, council candidates must collect at least 75 signatures from residents in their council district who are at least 18 years of age, according to Lauren Shafer, assistant Salt Lake City recorder.
Perez began that signature gathering process on Friday, confident that he'd easily qualify.
"We're going to go get 150 today," he said, grinning from beneath his mask.
This year, five Salt Lake City seats are up for election: Rogers' west-side seat representing District 1, which includes parts of the Rose Park, Jordan Meadows and Westpointe neighborhoods; Councilman Chris Wharton's east-side seat representing District 3, which includes Capitol Hill, the Greater Avenues and the Federal Heights neighborhoods; Councilman Darin Mano's seat representing District 5, which includes Ball Park, Liberty-Wells, East Liberty Park and Central City neighborhoods; and Councilwoman Amy Fowler's seat representing District 7, which includes Sugar House.
Also up for grabs is the District 2 seat, which Councilman Andrew Johnston is leaving vacant after he accepted a position in Mayor Erin Mendenhall's office to lead homelessness efforts. The candidate who wins that seat will serve a two-year term before facing reelection. Starting Monday, the city recorder will begin accepting applications from candidates to temporarily fill the vacancy until Jan 3.
Dust-up over primary elimination
The move to ranked-choice voting was generally supported by city leaders and residents who commented in last week's public hearing, seeing it as a way to discourage negative campaigning and increase representation on the ballot. Salt Lake City wouldn't be the first city in Utah to try it, with Vineyard and Payson in Utah County using the method in 2019. A poll of residents found voters in both cities preferred it.
But not everyone in Salt Lake City was on board with the timing, and the decision to do away with a primary was controversial.
"I think it's bad policy on our end as a board, as a council, to do this in an election year, at last minute," Rogers argued before he voted no on the proposal. "I understand we still have months leading up to it, but we have constituents that have no idea what's going on. They don't have any clue about ranked-choice voting."
After Johnston asked Shafer to explain the process, Rogers said the explanation only "muddied the waters" even more.
But the proposal passed, with six council members voting for it.
After the vote, the mayor said she supports ranked-choice voting and was glad that Salt Lake County now has the ability to accommodate it, but she still had grave misgivings with the decision to do away with the primary.
"I fear the council's made a serious mistake in eliminating the primary," she said. "It's a false shortening of how long it takes to connect with voters in a capital city that has an ever-growing population. Without a primary, having run three campaigns, you don't have a sense of how you're doing between those months of August and November where you can adjust your fundraising needs based on how you're doing in a campaign."
Mendenhall feared without a primary, candidates will focus on fundraising for polling, rather than spending more time engaging with voters.
"It's a good thing to implement ranked-choice voting, but a real mistake and a disservice to the opportunity to engage with the community by eliminating the primary," she said.
Shafer told the Deseret News on Friday her office is beginning to ramp up a "big public awareness campaign" to explain ranked-choice voting to Salt Lake City voters.
"We're open to questions," she said, "if anyone has any."