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Public gets its chance to weigh in on prison relocation

Audience members listen as the Prison Relocation Commission meets to discuss potential sites for a relocated correctional facility during the Utah Legislature in Salt Lake City Friday, Feb. 27, 2015.
Audience members listen as the Prison Relocation Commission meets to discuss potential sites for a relocated correctional facility during the Utah Legislature in Salt Lake City Friday, Feb. 27, 2015.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The co-chairman of the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission said he hopes Tuesday's public hearing on proposed sites for a new state prison won't be a repeat of recent meetings that turned raucous.

"I would hope people would want to be more mannerly than that," Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said Monday. "I realize they are emotionally charged. But that doesn't mean you have to be obnoxious."

Four sites are on the commission's shortlist for the $550 million project, in Salt Lake City, west of the Salt Lake City International Airport; in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County; and in Grantsville, near the Wal-Mart distribution center in Tooele County.

Significant opposition has emerged to each of the sites, but this the first — and only — public hearing the commission will hold. It is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Room 30 of the House Building at the state Capitol complex.

"It's a token meeting," said Heidi Balderree, one of the members of the group Keep It In Draper, trying to win approval from the Utah Supreme Court to launch a referendum to repeal legislation dealing with financing the prison move.

"My expectations are pretty low. I wish I could be more optimistic," the Saratoga Springs resident said, noting the hearing is being held near the end of the relocation process. "We feel like we're being ignored and we don't matter."

The commission is expected to recommend a site by the end of July for a 4,000-bed facility to replace the aging Utah State Prison in Draper. Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will call a special session of the Legislature to consider its choice.

Grantsville Mayor Brent Marshall said the relocation process has been "disheartening." He said the commission is pitting other communities against Draper, without listening to the public.

"I felt like throughout this whole process, the public really hasn't had the opportunity to say anything," Marshall said. "A lot of that emotion could have been downplayed if people had the opportunity to get some answers to their questions."

The mayor said the three open houses held by the commission in Salt Lake City, Eagle Mountain and Grantsville over the past few weeks were less informational and "more of a sales pitch."

Stevenson and other state and local officials promoting the prison move were repeatedly jeered while responding to presubmitted questions that were screened by a moderator during the open houses.

Some audience members held up signs reading "Liar," Stevenson said, an example of what he wants to avoid at the public hearing. "Hopefully, we can maintain decorum," he said.

The public hearing will be limited to three hours and time limits will be set for the speakers, Stevenson said. He said while the commission could "drag this on forever" by holding more hearings, the outcome won't be any different.

"We are interested in what people have to say. But we also know that the bottom line is we're going to relocate the prison," Stevenson said. "We'll try to be as fair as we can through the process."

Erin Youngberg, head of the Westpointe Community Council that represents residents living about five miles from the proposed Salt Lake prison site, said he's concerned the relocation decision may already be made.

The Deseret News reported earlier this month that a Utah County lawmaker, Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, counted veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate for the Salt Lake site in an informal survey.

"It's been concerning," Youngberg said. He said the commission has been dismissive about the concerns residents have raised about the impact of a prison on their community.

"If everyone in the state decided not to see it as a black eye to our community, it wouldnt' be such a big deal. But it is," Youngberg said. "Other people will look at our community and say, 'There's a prison complex going in there. It's less attractive.'"

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