Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Brouhaha exploding around Becker's firing of Burbank

Last week saw the entry of more presidential candidates, the collapse of the trade agreement and a court appearance by a former attorney general. But Utah political tongues were wagging most about the brouhaha exploding in Salt Lake City — Mayor Ralph Becker’s firing of Police Chief Chris Burbank. We can’t resist sharing our opinions.

It appears most Utahns believe this matter was handled poorly by City Hall. How big a problem is it for Becker’s re-election campaign?

Pignanelli: "Political necessities sometime turn out to be political mistakes." — George Bernard Shaw

The kerfuffle is attracting more attention and "tut-tutting" because it emphasizes perceived weaknesses within the Becker administration (out of touch with everyday operations, traveling too much, etc.). The controversy is further highlighted because Becker is not burdened with other disgraces. Parking kiosks, pesky bike lanes (which I really hate) and business complaints are small beer compared to the problems of his predecessors. If Becker maintains his usual, cool statesmanlike demeanor in response to criticisms in this matter, his challengers — especially Jackie Biskupskiand Luke Garrott — will bludgeon the mayor on the vulnerability.

Becker is at heart a policy wonk committed to environmental and human rights causes. But he can be a very shrewd politician. If the normally reserved Becker uses passion to explain his actions, the dispute is a tool to harvest the strong emotions city voters possess on privacy and sexual harassment. Becker's alter ego could transform this supposed crisis into an election year advantage.

Thankfully, watching this drama unfold partially fills the void caused by the season ending of “Game of Thrones.”

Webb: For Republicans like me, it’s entertaining to watch a politically progressive mayor brawl with his politically progressive police chief. In reality, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Becker and Burbank should have been able to work out their differences and shown a united front against sexual harassment long before it came to the point of an explosive firing. It should not have taken a notice of claim by the three women involved to bring this matter to a head.

Burbank was a visible and popular chief who appeared to run a highly professional operation. He supported his officers and the need for rigorous law enforcement, while also being sensitive to the concerns of minority groups and the nationwide soul-searching over police brutality.

Certainly, the police chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and if the mayor had lost confidence in him it was time to make a change. But the abruptness of the firing was a shock, and Becker is paying a political price. He has time to recover, but the incident is a setback in his bid for a third term.

Both Becker and Burbank have received criticism for the city’s handling of the sexual harassment allegations. Did they bungle this or is that just the nature of such controversies?

Pignanelli: Police Chief Burbank is extremely popular (I love the guy) who deserves the fondness of city residents for an amazing career. But there is another dynamic: almost every city voter has a cellphone, treasures the privacy of their family members and friends, and abhors sexual harassment. These emotions trump affection for the chief.

The demands of SLC residents for speedy action and deep punishment for offenders, in response to the outrageous violations the female police officers suffered, were not satisfied. Although clumsy in delivery, Becker finally resolved the matter.

Webb: Unfortunately, the sexual harassment issue has almost become lost in the publicity over the abrupt firing. Becker was obviously trying to show he has no tolerance for sexual harassment and he didn’t like the fact that the apparent perpetrator essentially enjoyed six months of paid vacation and then retired with full benefits.

But remember that the sexual harassment started four years ago in 2011. The review boards substantiated the claims by January 2014, a year and a half ago, and the perpetrator had been placed on paid administrative leave in November 2013. So Becker and Burbank had plenty of time to thoroughly air this matter, work out their differences, support the victims, and demonstrate zero tolerance for sexual harassment. It’s unfortunate they did not do so.

The claims of the three women may yet be vetted in court proceedings, so this story is not over.

An interesting twist to the story is how embattled state Rep. Justin Miller is trying to blame his problems on the police chief. While this accusation gets sorted out, House Democrats unanimously called for the resignation of their colleague Miller. Did these Democrats handle the issue appropriately?

Pignanelli: Miller admitted to theft on tape. He is attempting to destroy Mayor Ben McAdams — who gave him an opportunity to succeed. He refuses to offer his colleagues information about the allegations to help spare them embarrassment. Regardless of actual charges filed, Miller is guilty of political crimes. Minority Leader Brian King and his caucus handled this well.

Webb: In the Republican state of Utah, the only top seats Democrats control are the Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County mayorships. Now Democrats are forming circular firing squads in both entities to kill each other off. For such a small party, Democrats seem bent on self-destruction.