By closing their bus doors to the press during a two-day tour of possible 1998 Olympic venue sites this week, the 12 members of the Utah Sports Authority showed that they have a problem with their attitudes about doing the public's tax-supported business in public.
It's not just that the group refused to allow the press to report all discussions during the bus tour of seven sites. That decision can be justified at least part of the time during strategy talks over choosing among various bidders.The deeper concern is that the Olympic authority's members appear to feel that all their work should be done in private, that the press is to be avoided, and that the public should pay the bills and ratify the work afterward without providing any feedback on the authority's work.
The same attitude seems to permeate the Utah Olympic bid committee as well. That body has refused to answer questions from the media and has been known to deliberately mislead the press.
The facts are simple. The Sports Authority is an official state organization covered by the state's open meetings law. It is considering how to spend $54 million in tax money to build a practice ice rink, a speed skating oval and a winter sports park. These facilities are part of Utah's bid for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Seven groups in Salt Lake City, Summit County, Ogden, Bountiful, Provo and Orem have submitted local proposals for those sites. The Sports Authority decided to take a tour of all the sites, using travel time on the bus for an official meeting to discuss the bids.
The Sports Authority voted unanimously to make the bus ride a closed meeting. When journalists threatened legal action, an agreement was reached that would allow reporters to ride along except during discussions exempted by the state open meetings law. Then reporters would have to transfer to a second bus.
That arrangement was awkward, but if it was the best the Sports Authority would allow, the press was willing to go along. But when the time came for the first day's bus trip, the authority's members boarded the bus, closed the doors and said they were going to have a 1 1/2 days of private meetings.
The subterfuge, the misleading "agreement" and other behavior make one wonder about the panel's view of the press and the public. For example, when the Deseret News interviewed local officials and printed a story summarizing six of the seven venue bids, one member of the Sports Authority accused the paper of breaking the law.
That is patently nonsense. The attorney general's office promptly agreed that no law had been broken. But the accusation reflects a certain tendency by authority members to regard the press as an adversary.
Part of the problem may be due to the fact that most of the Sports Authority members are businessmen and lawyers who have not had much experience in dealing with the press.
The authority's members need to learn that shutting out the press is not a formula for success, especially since Olympic boosters are going to need a great deal of public support. Secretive behavior won't strengthen public confidence.
This particular episode has come and gone. The bus ride is over. Let's hope the Sports Authority has learned that public business is not to be conducted like private business. Continued secrecy can only leave the impression that the authority is naive, distrusts the public, or has something to hide.