What’s Taking so Long? Councilman Turns up Heat on Mayor as Salt Lake City Goes a Year Without a Transportation Director

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, left, and council member, District 4, Derek Kitchen at a recent housing announcment. Kitchen is turning up the heat on the administration to appoint a transportation director.

He added in an interview later Tuesday that “I don’t think the broader community realizes that for the first year of not having a transportation director, that we were just treading water.”

Biskupski was at a retreat Tuesday morning and not immediately available for comment.

Community and Neighborhoods Director Mike Reberg said Tuesday that after two failed searches for a new director, city staffers plan to meet Friday with an executive recruiter and lay the groundwork for a third attempt.

Reberg said there’s nothing stopping the council, in the meantime, from discussing the draft transit master plan that the administration released three months ago or the housing plan that it unveiled in February.

“Council member Kitchen has been on the council for a year and a half, and I think he’s really gotten good at expressing problems,” Reberg said, “but I think there’s a second part to being on the council and governing, and that is creating solutions.”

It was reported a year ago Tuesday that the city’s previous transportation director, Robin Hutcheson, was leaving to become director of public works in Minneapolis. Longtime city employee Kevin Young has since served ably as interim director, said Holly Mullen, Biskupski’s deputy communications director.

“There’s nothing stuck in neutral,” Mullen said. “There’s nothing going backward.”

Reberg said Hutcheson was hired without a search by then-Mayor Ralph Becker in 2012 to replace the retiring Tim Harpst, who had led the division for a quarter-century, and that “this is the first time this job has been out there in the public.”

The city last fall discovered three worthy candidates among 40 who applied during its first search, Reberg said.

One West Coast area candidate withdrew for personal reasons. Another from Texas sought a higher salary than the city was willing to offer. And internal candidate Nick Norris opted to instead become the city’s planning director.

A second search yielded just one qualified candidate, Reberg said. The man worked as a consultant and had applied during a lull in business, seeking stability. When business improved earlier this year, he lost interest, Reberg said, and declined a second interview.

Kitchen, who in tandem with Councilman James Rogers quizzed Reberg about that candidate during a May council work session, wondered Tuesday: “If somebody is looking for a job and they cancel their job interview because they’re no longer interested, what is that saying?”

Kitchen said there may be a perception because of the salary offered that “these positions within Salt Lake City are not valued” or that there is a “cultural problem” within Biskupski’s administration.

Reberg said city offered two candidates slightly more than the $118,000 salary that Hutcheson made in her fourth year — despite having listed a lower range — and revised its salary range for the second job posting so that it peaked at $115,000.

The city’s transportation division is set up differently than most others around the country, Reberg said, in that some of the transportation functions are part of the city’s engineering or planning arms. The transportation division is relatively small, and its director oversees about two dozen staff.

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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, left, and council member, District 4, Derek Kitchen at a recent housing announcment. Kitchen is turning up the heat on the administration to appoint a transportation director.

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One candidate who spurned Utah’s capital wondered if there was “any thought of, down the road, turning the transportation division into a more complete division,” Reberg said.

Kitchen aired his grievances amid a break in council business after the approval of a $273 million budget.

Council members last week voted down state Sen. Jim Dabakis, Biskupski’s choice to represent the city on the Utah Transit Authority board, saying they had wanted a candidate with better transportation credentials.

Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said before his interview with the council that he felt he had been drawn into a “raging war” between the council and Biskupski. The sides have had well-publicized disputes about a range of issues since Biskupski edged Becker in the 2015 race.

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