SLC Planning Commissioner resigns, saying the group lacks power and expertise

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Andra Ghent resigned from the Salt Lake City Planning Commission on Tuesday, saying in a letter to the mayor she felt the commission was constrained by city staffers and unable to affect positive changes on city issues under its purview.

While she said she was supportive of Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Ghent wrote in a resignation letter obtained by Building Salt Lake that the commission she served on since 2021 isn’t set up to influence major policy issues around housing and transportation.

“This letter is to notify you that I am resigning as I am unable to make a positive difference for the city, the region, or the state in my role as a commissioner,” Ghent wrote in the letter she sent Tuesday evening. The letter was addressed to Mendenhall and Planning Director Nick Norris.

Ghent was the only commissioner representing District 5, which generally includes the Ballpark, Liberty Wells and East Liberty Park neighborhoods.

Ghent’s resignation — the second in recent weeks — creates fresh opportunities for the mayor to show her approach to housing in her second term, as the commission sets the city’s tone toward development in the capital city.

In addition to her unpaid seat on the commission, Ghent also serves as Ivory-Boyer chair of real estate and director of undergraduate real estate programs at the University of Utah. 

Not long after Mendenhall appointed her and the City Council confirmed her to the commission, Ghent became a force for change.

She was the strongest voice toward removing red tape around creating family-sized accessory dwelling units in the city and proposed allowing ADUs up to 1,000 square feet.

She also pushed ahead with the request to ban drive-thrus in the Sugar House urban core, which the city quickly studied and the City Council later voted to ban.

Behind the scenes, Ghent pushed city leaders to make streets safer for people who aren’t driving. Air quality was one of her primary reasons for joining the commission, Ghent told the mayor in her letter. 

“As you know, the main cause of our winter inversion is emissions from cars because we make driving too easy and lack density,” Ghent wrote.

“I was hopeful I could gently nudge SLC towards people-centric density that would improve our air quality,” Ghent wrote. “However, there is no opportunity for commissioners to initiate petitions that would create meaningful change for the city.”

The commission spends too much time hearing from the public about administrative matters that are outside the purview of the commission, Ghent wrote, wasting commissioners’ time and frustrating the public who took time to comment.

She said the city should consider changing its code to not require the commission to hear public comment on administrative matters.

Ghent also took issue with her colleagues on the commission.

“I’m disappointed at the lack of knowledge of urban economics and/or real estate among some of my fellow commissioners,” she said. “In addition to wasting meeting time explaining basic concepts, the lack of expertise frequently leads to poor decisions.”

Ghent wrote that the mayor had an opportunity to add a significant expertise to the commission if she had appointed Dejan Eskic, senior research fellow and scholar at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, to the commission.

“Dejan is widely regarded as one of the top two researchers of Utah’s housing market,” Ghent wrote. “The city did not provide Dejan with a reason for his non-appointment. Given the lack of expertise on the commission, and Dejan’s general agreeableness, his non-appointment suggests the city is not interested in an evidence-based planning strategy.”

Ghent closed by pointing out Planning Commission meetings have no ending time, which amounts to commissioners writing a “blank check” for their time. That lack of an ending time can lead to marathon meetings on issues that aren’t under the purview of the commission and can lead to “poor decisions” by the group, she said. 

“Rather than donating my time, I plan to donate money to candidates and locally-focused organizations consistent with improving the city’s walkability, our air quality, and housing affordability.”

Ghent’s resignation precedes the upcoming departure of Turner Bitton, a housing advocate who was appointed to the commission this year.

Bitton, who is also chair of the Glendale Community Council, recently launched the advocacy group SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors. Wednesday night’s meeting will be his last.

Email Taylor Anderson

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Read the full letter below

“Dear Director Norris and Mayor Mendenhall,

Mayor Mendenhall, congratulations on your re-election. I know you are moving SLC in the right direction and especially value your ability to form partnerships that benefit the city. I hope now that you no longer face the political pressure of an election, we can move faster towards improving our air quality, housing affordability, and creating the density that fosters high-quality job growth.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as a Planning Commissioner. I have learned a lot through the experience and am grateful to have been appointed.

This letter is to notify you that I am resigning as I am unable to make a positive difference for the city, the region, or the state in my role as a commissioner. I share my reasoning to provide context in hopes that the information may be useful going forward.

I joined the commission because I was concerned about our air quality. As you know, the main cause of our winter inversion is emissions from cars because we make driving too easy and lack density. I was hopeful I could gently nudge SLC towards people-centric density that would improve our air quality. However, there is no opportunity for commissioners to initiate petitions that would create meaningful change for the city. I often felt like, rather than providing support for commissioners to make decisions for the city, staff viewed planning commissioners as low-level administrative employees to be managed and contained.

Far too much meeting time is spent hearing verbal public comment on administrative matters. Not only does this waste commissioner time, it doesn’t serve the public. Most public comments on administrative matters are outside the purview of what the commission can consider and so the public usually ends up frustrated that they took the time to show up and then didn’t get what they wanted. Further, the members of the public that do show up to meetings are overwhelmingly white, older homeowners in contrast to our young, racially diverse, majority renter city. This could easily be changed by changing the city’s code to not permit verbal public comment on administrative matters. We are not required by state law to allow public comment on administrative matters.

I’m disappointed at the lack of knowledge of urban economics and/or real estate among some of my fellow commissioners. In addition to wasting meeting time explaining basic concepts, the lack of expertise frequently leads to poor decisions. Were it a lack of suitable candidates, I would understand appointing unqualified commissioners. However, my colleague Dejan Eskic, a recognized expert on housing and commercial real estate, applied to a vacancy and was not selected. Dejan is widely regarded as one of the top two researchers of Utah’s housing market. The city did not provide Dejan with a reason for his non-appointment. Given the lack of expertise on the commission, and Dejan’s general agreeableness, his non-appointment suggests the city is not interested in an evidence-based planning strategy.

Finally, the meetings oddly have no ending time such that I am effectively writing a blank check on my time every time I attend a meeting. I understand that a public hearing cannot be guaranteed to be completed by a certain time but it would seem straightforward to adjourn between agenda items when the meeting has already gone past a certain time, e.g., 9pm. In addition to making it difficult to find commissioners that can commit not just their Wednesday evening but the quality of their day on Thursday, the commission often makes poor decisions when it has already been in session for 3+ hours.

In summary, being a commissioner is not an effective use of my time. Rather than donating my time, I plan to donate money to candidates and locally-focused organizations consistent with improving the city’s walkability, our air quality, and housing affordability.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to serve and I wish both of you the best of luck in your future endeavors.”

Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.