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The verbal jujitsu that is the Salt Lake City mayor's race intensified Thursday evening as four challengers sharpened their attacks on incumbent Ralph Becker and in some cases one another.
Becker staked out his ground early by pointing to the renaissance downtown and in Sugar House, coupled with an upswing in sales and property taxes. When he took the helm at City Hall 7½ years ago, the municipality was in crisis, he said. Today, it's a glowing success, according to some financial publications he cited.
But opponents Jackie Biskupski, George Chapman, Luke Garrott and Dave Robinson wasted little time criticizing the mayor on issues of public safety, a proposed $150 million recreation bond, the crisis surrounding homelessness downtown and, not least, sexual harassment.
The five candidates clashed before an audience of 250 at the Salt Lake City Main Library, at a program sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune. After a half-dozen such debates, the jabs appeared to be getting sharper.
All four challengers criticized the mayor for the growing homelessness problem in the Rio Grande district near Pioneer Park that is infused with drug trafficking and violence. None of the challengers is in favor of moving the Road Home shelter.
Becker said he couldn't answer that question until his commission on homeless services comes back with recommendations late this year.
Both Biskupski, a former state legislator, and Garrott, chairman of the City Council, said housing for homeless people should be less concentrated, and that women and children should be separated from the male population.
Businessman Robinson suggests that the city and service providers do more to get drug users into programs.
"We don't need any more commissions," said community activist Chapman. "We need a solution now."
Becker and Garrott teamed up to criticize Biskupski for a slew of billboards popping up supporting her candidacy that are the product of a political action committee formed by Reagan Outdoor Advertising.
Although City Recorder Cindi Mansell has said she is unsure whether the billboards break city election law, both Becker and Garrott maintain they violate at least the spirit of the law.
Biskupski said that she had nothing to do with the signs and that the billboard company was aiming at Becker's leadership or lack thereof.
But Garrott was not done. He also criticized Becker for accepting numerous donations from big corporations in Salt Lake City.
"We need to make sure our local elections are not corrupted by big money," Garrott said.
The challengers also jumped on Becker's $150 million recreation bond proposal, saying it was too much.
Robinson criticized the mayor for proposing that spending while not protecting watershed in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons. He added that the Mountain Accord, supported by Becker, would allow resorts to develop larger base operations.
Nonetheless, the mayor said, the bond proposal is now before the City Council, which could modify it. He added that the proposal would repurpose the Glendale Golf Course to serve a larger segment of the population than the links now do. And, finally, he said, it would be up to voters to decide.
Along the same line, Biskupski and Garrott also criticized the mayor for the new $119 million Eccles Theater being constructed downtown between 100 South and 200 South on Main Street. The pair argued the recreation bond and the theater are projects that serve only a portion of the community.
And Biskupski added that voters didn't get a chance to weigh in on the theater because the mayor financed it with funds originally earmarked for EnergySolutions Arena and the expansion of the Calvin Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center.
Becker has maintained the theater would continue the upward trajectory of Salt Lake City as a regional center and would increase overall revenues downtown.
But Chapman said that Becker's push for big developments is driving out the people and small businesses that give the city character.
And Robinson argued that downtown doesn't have enough residential offerings or parking.
Policing also was a topic of debate Thursday evening. Chapman and Garrott criticized the mayor for not having enough cops on the beat. Garrott noted that the City Council added bicycle cops to the police department budget over the objection of the Becker administration.
That conversation turned quickly into a discussion of sexual harassment in city government and the recent forced resignation of Chris Burbank as police chief.
Becker said he would not tolerate sexual harassment and that is why Burbank had to go.
But Garrott criticized the mayor for waiting a year to take action on the substantiated allegations by three female officers against former Deputy Chief Rick Findlay. Garrott said the City Council would work to strengthen policies regarding sexual harassment.
Biskupski went further, saying that sexual harassment is a problem throughout city government.
A primary election is slated for Aug. 11. The two top vote-getters will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.