Rocky ruffled: “Everyone knows that’s the way it is” when the LDS Church is involved, SLC’s mayor says
Concerns raised by the LDS Church over two proposed alcohol-related laws may have helped kill them even before a vote.
Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake City, abandoned a bill that was never made public because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apparently opposed it, as did Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
And Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said he believes the push he made months ago to change a city ordinance to permit more than two bars per block would fail before the City Council because the church reportedly opposes the change.
A majority of officials in both government bodies are Mormon.
“The church, like anybody else, certainly has a right to make its views known,” Anderson said Thursday, but added: “It’s the only organization, I think, that seems to automatically get its way among most elected officials.”
Contacted late yesterday, LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills did not comment.
Hale’s bill would have allowed charter schools to open near bars, private clubs and restaurants that serve alcohol. She said she wasn’t out to change liquor laws but to help the Salt Lake Arts Academy find a home and fulfill part of its mission of being downtown. School officials want students to take TRAX, use the city library and mix with the business crowd.
But state law prohibits alcohol establishments from opening within 600 feet of parks, libraries or schools for kindergartners through 12th-graders. Salt Lake City wants the school downtown, and school leaders don’t mind being next to bars.
If local zoning allows, there’s no state law against a school opening near a bar. But if the city, which does not allow schools downtown, were to change its zoning to allow them, it would prevent new bars and restaurants from opening – running counter to redevelopment efforts.
Hale said she never heard directly from the church, but was told by other lawmakers and people in the hospitality industry that the church had concerns about her bill. MADD also opposed it and Hale didn’t want to pit the anti-drunken-driving group against schools.
Did she drop it because the church opposed it and thus other lawmakers would too? “I’m hesitant to go that far. Certainly that was part of [it],” she said, adding that MADD’s opposition also played a part. “I’ve talked to other legislators who’ve worked on liquor laws before. I got their feedback [that] it’s not going to go this session.”
The school is temporarily in the old Main Library building and would like to be there permanently. The city is less concerned with the school curtailing bar development around the library because that is not downtown and not part of the entertainment core. But the school’s lease is up in June and the building will be renovated for The Leonardo at Library Square.
Anderson called Hale’s bill “innocuous” – it would have required the City Council and Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control to agree to the variance after a public hearing.
He added that he didn’t blame the senator for pulling the bill. “Once the church makes its position known on issues like this, everyone knows that’s the way it is.”
He said that’s what makes him believe his bid to allow more than two private clubs or taverns per block face is dead.
Several months ago, then-Council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love surveyed council members for Anderson to see if they were interested in creating a limited entertainment district. At about the same time, church officials were talking to council members about downtown developments. Love said a church official was asked his opinion.
“The church would definitely weigh in on it [and] they would oppose it,” Love recalled. “I don’t think it changed anyone’s mind. I don’t think anyone was asking for their advice on how to vote. I know it would probably offend some in our community but [because the church is a major player downtown] the spirit was no different than asking the Chamber of Commerce.”
Council members said Thursday they are still willing to hear the mayor out, though they have questions about police enforcement and if it is necessary.
Councilman Dave Buhler said he asked the church because he heard, erroneously, that they would support the mayor’s idea and was surprised. “I’m sure we’d listen to them and everybody else.”
Councilman Eric Jergensen, who said he also contacted the church along with MADD and the police, said it wasn’t fair for the mayor to suggest the idea is doomed because of church opposition. “Bring us an idea and let’s look at it.”
Even Anderson, who has questioned the church’s influence on the council over Nordstrom and the Main Street Plaza, sought church input when he unsuccessfully tried to change the ordinance in 2001.
On Wednesday, Anderson held his last public forum on bridging the divide among Mormons and others and one theme was the alienation some non-Mormons feel when they believe Mormon values run the state. To heal, Anderson said it is “crucial” to move away public officials allowing the church to “control” public policy.
Tribune reporter Matt Canham contributed to this story.