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Mike Reberg, the controversial choice of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski to head up the Department of Public Utilities, has withdrawn from consideration after growing criticism of his nomination.
Critics agreed that Reberg, who was until Friday the director of the Salt Lake County Division of Animal Services, is an able administrator. But they took issue with his lack of technical experience, which they said is required for the position that oversees the city's water system and watershed.
In a prepared statement Monday, Reberg said it was unclear whether he could secure the backing of the council and was withdrawing his name to "ensure a smooth transition" for the new administration.
Biskupski praised Reberg.
"It is with regret that I accept Mike Reberg's request to withdraw from consideration," she said in a statement. "I continue to believe Mike is one of the most qualified individuals we could find to lead public utilities."
Most recently, however, the Utah Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) wrote to the mayor and City Council, saying it is essential the director of public utilities have the technical background needed for the position.
"ASCE recognizes the importance of having qualified engineers lead agencies that have a direct impact on the public health, safety and welfare," the letter said. "It is imperative that these policies and procedures be developed by licensed professional engineers who are technically competent."
Former Director Jeff Niermeyer, who left City Hall in December after Biskupski's election victory, has an engineering degree. He worked under LeRoy Hooton for 16 years before taking the director's post in 2006.
Several City Council members also had voiced concerns regarding Reberg's qualifications. An advise-and-consent hearing was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, when panel members could question Reberg. An up or down vote on his appointment was scheduled for Tuesday evening. A simple majority of the seven-member council is required for approval.
Reberg, who could not be reached for comment Monday, has held other positions in county government, most notably deputy director of public works.
He also has worked for former Congressman Jim Matheson, as well as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Former Mayor Rocky Anderson was among those who turned up the heat last week with a blistering letter to the council regarding Biskupski's nomination of Reberg as well as the terminations of Rick Graham as director of public services and D.J. Baxter, who headed up the redevelopment agency.
Biskupski's nomination for public utilities director could have been handled differently, said Tim Chambless, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, who also is affiliated with the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Chambless, who worked for former Mayor Ted Wilson, said to avoid a public flap, Wilson would float proposed appointments by the City Council informally before officially nominating them.
"His style was a cooperative approach," Chambless said. "I wish before Jackie had done it, she had talked to Ted."
While the episode proved embarrassing for Biskupski, not to mention Reberg, the new mayor should be able to overcome the setback, Chambless said.
"She has been in office just four weeks," he said. "It's a first-time mistake."
Council Chairman James Rogers, in a prepared statement Monday, said the council takes its advise-and-consent authority seriously because it impacts the health and safety of residents and visitors.
"This has clearly been a tough decision," Rogers said, "but I respect Mr. Reberg's decision. I personally would have supported Mr. Reberg for a number of other city director positions, and appreciate his interest in serving city residents."
In an interview, Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said she is relieved the council won't have to grill Reberg on his technical qualifications for the position.
"It would have been embarrassing," she said of the approval process. "It would have been an unfortunate experience for him and the administration."
The Reberg nomination is among the issues that have caused tension between the council and the new mayor. During the election, a majority of the council endorsed Biskupski's opponent, two-term Mayor Ralph Becker.
Mendenhall described it as a "rough beginning" for the administration and its interaction with the legislative body.
"It's too soon to tell what the relationship between the mayor and the council will be," she said. "Hopefully, the cogs of the administration and council can line up better in the future."
Biskupski said she had complete confidence in the public utilities staff and that she would prioritize the search for a new director.
"I look forward to working with the City Council and the public," she said, "to find a leader who has the managerial, environmental and political expertise to ensure the Department of Public Utilities is fully supported."