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Sugar House Journal

Newly-minted County Mayor Jenny Wilson 
talks about staff, strategies 
and her favorite words 

Mar 08, 2019 11h41 ● By Jennifer J Johnson

A political centrist, new Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson pairs the eastside political leanings of liberal policy advisor Weston Clark (shown here) with those of conservative southwest policy advisor Ryan Perry (not pictured).

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

We have all heard of the “Great American Dream.”

But what about the “Great Salt Lake County Dream?”

The Great Salt Lake County Dream is the vision of newly-minted Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Democrat Wilson was sworn in as Mayor of Salt Lake County Jan. 29, after winning a four-candidate special-election runoff by central committee members of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party. The special election mechanism was invoked to fill the county mayoral spot vacated by Ben McAdams as he went to Washington, D.C., having defeated Republican Mia Love.

Wilson is slated to complete the last two years of McAdams’ original term, and then plans to campaign to reclaim the seat in 2020. Most recently, she lost the U.S. Senate race to Republican Mitt Romney in the same election advancing McAdams.

Unpacking ‘The Salt Lake County Dream’

The term “Great American Dream” was coined in 1931 by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Truslow Adams. It
is a dream “in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… [It is] a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

The Great Salt Lake County Dream, à la Wilson, includes ensuring the public good in terms of air quality, housing access and affordability, and the delicate balance of growth management. Wilson strives for a diversified economy, and seeks to “preserve that with an expanding population.”

“A lot of people have been left behind,” she observed.

And, in her point of view, more Salt Lake County citizens are now being left behind, from Medicaid-expansion movement by first the Utah Legislature, and then Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

Just days after she met with City Journals, the Mayor had one of her dream-like priorities firmly quashed – her support of Utah’s Medicaid expansion, a program she indicated as being the “best for our county” in “giving people the healthcare they deserve.” 

In the November 2018 election, 53 percent of Utahns voted to expand the state’s coverage of medical coverage for the poor via the citizen-initiated Proposition 3. Concerned with ensuring “compassion and frugality,” the Republican Legislature drafted a services-limiting bill to supersede the citizen initiative, which was signed into law early last month by Herbert, closed all hope of the people’s mandate.

Nonetheless, Wilson—a Harvard- and University of Utah-educated, second-generation of a Salt Lake County political dynasty (her father, Ted Wilson, was a three-term-winning mayor of Salt Lake City)—is firmly committed to helping realize the Salt Lake County version of the American Dream, and says she has a 30-, 60- and 90-day plan to make it happen for the nearly 1.5 million citizens of the county.

Wilson’s first 30 days

Wilson told City Journals that the first few months in office is, in great part, about building relationships with senior leadership and employees. It is also about stabilization.

Wilson already has two senior policy advisors named to her staff. Immediately exhibiting centrism at the outset of her first term, Wilson has flanked herself with senior policy advisors Weston Clark and Ryan Perry.

Clark lives in Salt Lake City’s Eastside Harvard-Yale neighborhood. He is an openly gay, decorated former Chair of the Salt Lake County Democrats. Clark previously advised Wilson in her capacity as Salt Lake County Councilwoman. 

Perry calls Southwest-valley’s Riverton home and has held statewide responsibilities in Utah’s Republican Party. Perry has deep experience in policy and administrative roles and a long-term role in the county. He received recent notoriety as part of an ancillary probe of the “BonusGate” controversy involving the Unified Fire Authority and then-chief Michael Jensen, who still serves as a member of the Salt Lake County Council.

Having the bipartisan team of Perry and Clark seems to echo the tenor the previous mayor, McAdams, set. McAdams hired community outreach personnel who had previously staffed multiple Republican administrations, here in Utah and elsewhere.

For the key role of communications director, Wilson has tapped out-of-area broadcast veteran Chloe Morroni who recently relocated to Salt Lake a few months ago.

Communications is critical for the Wilson administration. During the run-off campaign for mayor, one of Wilson’s opponents touted her own unique communications skills in “telling Salt Lake County’s story.” Wilson seems to have taken that to heart, promoting the big-picture “dream” and hiring veteran Edwin R. Murrow and Emmy award-winning broadcaster Morroni. 

To tell and sell “Salt Lake County’s Story,” Morroni will look to leverage the Mayor’s deep knowledge of county programs, gained from Wilson’s having served 10 years as an “At-Large” member of the Salt Lake County Council. This experience has been further informed by what she tells City Journals are “hundreds of conversations” gleaned while going door-to-door on the campaign trail, prior to being elected mayor.

Wilson’s 60-90 Days

After putting a staff in place, Wilson wants to work swiftly to keep the county from being “a little scattered” with certain initiatives such as air quality policy.

Wilson vows to explore creative solutions to help control the cost of housing in the county, real-world solutions to improving our air quality, and managing growth in a way that enhances economic development while maintaining a high quality of life. Growth, she feels, must balance with environmental justice and be driven by community-based economic development.

Wilson feels the need to learn from the stalled Olympia Hills high-density housing project, which sailed through the county council 7-1, only to be vetoed by then-Mayor McAdams, amid profound citizen complaint.

“We missed as a community,” she reflects. “We used a traditional process, but missed by failing to communicate the overall, long-term picture.”

That “picture?” What was missing was clear communication to residents of “a decades-long commitment to infrastructure.” 

Referred to as “another Daybreak,” the math was simple: 9,000 acres, 900 units. Approval was anything but simple, with the Salt Lake County Council (including then-Councilwoman Wilson) approving, but Southwest Valley mayors uniting to oppose, Herriman citizens being outraged, and then-Mayor McAdams ultimately vetoing. McAdams’ veto sent the project back to the drawing board in terms of zoning and any future projects.

Projects, Wilson believes, need the tandem tools of “benchmarks” and “best practices.” A big believer in data capture and sharing, Wilson wants to “enrich Salt Lake County’s partnerships with each municipality and township in our boundaries to help ensure our respective services are coordinated and efficient.”

With Brighton now incorporating as a city, thereby joining Salt Lake County, Wilson now oversees coordination matters of 18 different cities. Seeking to get “every local community and every mayor on board,” Wilson wants to establish “Best Practices Advisory Teams” and to “be that connector” between cities. 

Wilson also expressed the need to prioritize transportation solutions for access to the canyons.

The Snowmaggeddon Hiccup

Any 30-, 60-, or 90-day plan may not have anticipated the “Snowmaggedon” of Feb. 6, 2019.

On that day, numerous school districts, city, and private businesses were closed due to persistent snowfall the evening before, the early morning, and throughout the day.

This happening one week after assuming the role, gave Wilson an early insight into what it’s like to be the Salt Lake County Mayor, where, even to a veteran public servant like Wilson, the work can be daunting.

“A lot of assignments, a lot of work, a lot of decisions on a daily basis,” she recounts of her freshman mayor experience.

By 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, within 20 minutes of receiving briefings and having discussions, Wilson made the call to shut down most County operations. She indicated being proud of County-wide snow service running smoothly that day, as well as life-critical programs such as Meals on Wheels being executed without problem, amid sometimes ferocious storming.

She says she is awed by the “power of the county and how critical our services are,” adding, “I had the chance to see this in action, very quickly.”