Every city has boards and commissions that residents can volunteer to sit on. They don’t usually pay and most of them don’t require any expertise. They might seem dull or insignificant. But there are real consequences when those seats are empty.
This story began with me trying to figure out why there were so many empty seats on boards and commissions in Salt Lake City. Now, I’m here in a boarded up house on 700 East, trying not to step on a dead raccoon or worse, a hypodermic needle.
Bottles of urine line the walls in the basement. There’s about three feet of trash, human waste, clothes and blankets on the floor. The roof has collapsed and has slid to one side.
Tim Stay says the house has been vacant 15 years. He’s the CEO of The Other Side Academy, a non-profit that helps people exiting jail or homelessness adjust to normal life. His organization bought the property a year and a half ago with plans to tear it down and build additional housing for his clients - a population in desperate need of an affordable place to live.
So he went to Salt Lake City in December and applied for an emergency demolition.
“We were denied,” Stay says. “We appealed that denial and the appeal has yet to be heard over 10 months later.”
It’s an old building. And because the city is careful about what happens to historic buildings, they told Stay it could be restored. But he doubts that.
“This building has been so damaged by the weather, by fire, by vagrants, by the contamination of the asbestos that it’s been stripped of any architectural charm,” Stay says. “And it will continue to remain an eyesore for Salt Lake City and it will continue to remain a dangerous place to be in or next to.”
Stay says he could make a case to the city’s Appeals Board that this building is too far-gone. The only problem is that five-member board doesn’t exist right now. There’s no one on it.
Mike Reberg oversees all the demolition requests and home improvement projects in the city.
“The last time this board was in place was according to Orion the building services director, four or five years ago was the last time they acted on anything, so this board has sort of fallen away,” he says. "And we have tried to get people to come participate on this board."
It’s the mayor’s responsibility to make appointments to the city’s 25 boards and commissions.
Appeals is not the only board with vacant seats. The 11-member Housing Trust Fund Advisory Board, which deals with low-income housing, has five empty seats. The Transportation Advisory Board: six vacancies. The 7-member golf fund advisory board: three vacancies. And the board that reviews police incidents has four empty seats. This is the group that investigated the case of Salt Lake City Police Det. Jeff Payne who arrested University Hospital Nurse Alex Wubbels.
Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke is frustrated by the vacancies.
I asked him why it’s so difficult to fill boards like these.
“It shouldn’t be that difficult,” Luke says. “And that’s one of the frustrations that I have and it’s not just with our current administration, but in previous administrations, it seems like boards are something that administrations typically have a difficult time with.”
Public records show the city received about 80 applications this summer for various boards and commissions. So lack of interest isn’t the issue.
And Luke knows it’s tough for people to find the time.
“But I know a lot of people who are interested in making time to do this,” Luke says. “And when we have individuals who are interested in making time to serve, then I think we need to really insure that we’re providing those opportunities.”
Simone Butler manages boards for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. She explained why it’s so difficult to fill these seats. The city wants diverse boards. And it’s more complicated than just race or gender.
“You know, we don’t want five attorneys on one board. We don’t want five educators on one board,” Butler says.” So to be able to find people who represent a different perspective. I think that prevents us from being able to fill all the vacancies.”
“If the mayor’s office is having a difficult time finding people then let us know,” says Councilman Charlie Luke.
“Because we want to have our constituents being involved in what we’re doing and what’s going on,” he says. "The more involved the public is, the better policy we're going to have."
The mayor’s spokesman Matthew Rojas says he expects three of the four vacancies on the Police Civilian Review Board to be filled in the coming months. But the Appeals board? That’s probably not happening any time soon.
Tim Stay with The Other Side Academy says in the meantime, he’s preparing for a hearing in November with the Historic Landmark Commission, which might be able to greenlight the demolition. But he says instead of spending time helping get more people off the street and building something useful he’s working through a maze of paperwork and bureaucracy to tear something down.