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The forced resignation of former police Chief Chris Burbank by Mayor Ralph Becker could play a significant role in the mayor's race: A Salt Lake Tribune poll finds that 42 percent of those surveyed opposed the chief's ouster, while 26 percent supported it.
The survey of 662 registered Salt Lake City voters also found 32 percent were undecided about Burbank's exit. The poll conducted by SurveyUSA from July 13 through July 21 has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
The survey found that men opposed Burbank's forced departure by 44 percent compared to 24 percent who approved and 31 percent undecided.
Women opposed the chief's forced resignation by 39 percent, while 28 percent approved and 33 percent were undecided.
More voters in the 18-34 age group supported Burbank's departure than opposed it. According to the poll, 34 percent were in favor with 25 percent opposed and 42 percent undecided.
By contrast, in the 50-64 age group, the poll found a wide gulf of 53 percent opposed to 20 percent in favor and 27 percent unsure. Those 65 and older were even more resoundingly opposed to the ouster 69 percent to 16 percent, with 16 percent undecided.
Burbank's departure could be seen as a sea change in the race for mayor, according to Tim Chambless, a University of Utah political science professor who also is affiliated with the Hinckley Institute of Politics. In an interview shortly after Burbank's June 11 exit, Chambless said voters were "uneasy" with the way the popular chief was let go.
"Before [June 11], Becker was odds-on to get re-elected," Chambless said. "Now voters are reassessing."
On Wednesday, Chambless said he sees parallels between the survey of the chief's departure and a Tribune poll published last week that gave Jackie Biskupski a 12-point, 33 to 21 percent edge over Becker.
"It does not bode well for Ralph," Chambless said. "He's been in office for 7½ years. He has name recognition ... and yet he is polling in the 20s."
The issue surrounding Burbank was brought to a head by substantiated sexual-harassment claims lodged by three female police officers against former Deputy Chief Rick Findlay that began in April 2011. It wasn't until mid-2013 that the Department of Human Resources and the Police Civilian Review Board began separate investigations. Both substantiated the claims by January 2014.
Although Findlay was placed on administrative leave in November 2013, Burbank did not accept his resignation until June 4, 2014, when Findlay was able to retire with full benefits.
The issue was rekindled in May, when the women filed a notice of claim with the city a precursor to a lawsuit. That spawned criticism and became political fodder as Becker and four challengers seek votes in advance of an Aug. 11 primary.
Chambless and others were left to wonder why the mayor didn't deal with the chief in 2014, rather than waiting a year as the election campaign cranked up.
Becker has said on numerous occasions that Burbank's departure was not politically motivated. Rather, the mayor explained, the chief had not kept promises to demote Findlay and had not moved forward with instituting programs aimed at eliminating sexual harassment in the police department. The chief, Becker said, had made those pledges after the harassment claims were substantiated but before Findlay retired.
On Wednesday, the mayor again said he set aside politics when making the decision regarding Burbank. Becker said he realized the move would be shocking, given the chief's popularity. But Burbank's "insubordination" and lack of action on sexual-harassment initiatives left him little choice.
"The decision had to be in the best interest of Salt Lake City. Political consequences are not the right basis for a decision," Becker said. "I feel comfortable with my decision making."
Burbank, by contrast, has said that after the June 2014 flap about Findlay's retirement, he had no communication with the mayor on the matter until June 2015. The former chief said that on June 11, he was called to City Hall and instructed to read a prepared statement at a news conference in which he would apologize and take full blame for the sexual-harassment controversy. When Burbank refused, he was asked to resign.
The former chief said Wednesday that he is considering his options and feels good about his future. He is most happy, he said, with the public embrace he has experienced since he left office.
"One of the things that has been really nice is that the support has been really tremendous," Burbank said. "How the people appreciate me, that's more important to me than anything else."
Burbank added that although he didn't want to appear as having a case of sour grapes, he wouldn't be voting for Becker.
"Integrity is the most important thing to me," he said. "And I don't think Ralph Becker has demonstrated that in the past few months."
Two recent polls suggest that Becker will emerge as one of two top vote-getters from the Aug. 11 primary. The other primary victor, the polls indicate, will be former state legislator Jackie Biskupski. If that holds true, the pair would face off in the Nov. 3 general election.