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My view: Why do politicians keep thinking closed-door meetings are OK?

Dignitaries sign the Mountain Accord in Cottonwood Heights, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.
Dignitaries sign the Mountain Accord in Cottonwood Heights, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

UTA’s executive board and senior staff this week had a four-hour presentation on transparency (Salt Lake Tribune, ‘You need a culture of transparency’: Consultant gives UTA ideas to improve credibility and openness”). Just before the presentation, there was a discussion on the Mountain Accord and its next step, the Central Wasatch Commission.

It was stated that the Mountain Accord board included volunteers and was not a public entity and did not have to abide by Utah’s Open Meetings Act. When it was pointed out that Utah auditor John Dougall had recently confirmed that the Mountain Accord Board was subject to the Open Meetings Act, UTA’s general counsel Jayme Blakesley responded that, according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, the Mountain Accord was not subject to the Open Meetings Act and the DA is a lawyer while the auditor is not.

That kind of disrespect seems to be everywhere. Open meetings are not an inconvenience. They encourage public engagement and allow a thorough discussion that leads to better decisions. To have that kind of comment, just before a presentation on the benefits of transparency and openness, is especially disturbing since it seems to imply that open meetings are still not considered important.

UTA’s executive board recently seems to be determined to be more open. But being more open should not just be a new way of doing things. It shouldn’t take a public shaming. As was pointed out in the transparency presentation, encouraging public participation helps the decision-making of a board.

Ironically, the issue of the openness of the Mountain Accord executive board meetings has been brought up several times in the last week. After Utah’s auditor confirmed that the Mountain Accord should have open meetings, a group of canyon land owners filed suit that questioned the Mountain Accord’s legality. This week, at a public hearing in front of the County Council, there was testimony that there were several instances of executive board meetings that were not noticed and that did not allow the public to participate. Then, the County Council released a breakdown of the million-dollar contract for LJ Consulting, the Mountain Accord’s director. It revealed several other questionable consulting contracts that were also contributing to Mayor Ben McAdams re-election campaign.

Open-door meetings would have ensured that these issues would not have happened. If the public had a chance to analyze the contracts before they were given, the chance of questionable contract awards would have been avoided. McAdams is chairman of the Mountain Accord Executive Committee and should have been more responsible, respectful and open to more public engagement. When businesses get government contracts, there should be a limit to rewarding the politicians that gave them the contract.

It was recently revealed that Exoro Group did get a large contract from the mayor’s Mountain Accord and is also contributing significantly to McAdams' re-election campaign. Exoro Group does have influence in all layers of Utah government. When its contracts are openly and easily available, there is less concern about ethical issues and influence. When the closed meetings or meetings that don’t have any public knowledge (through proper minutes or recordings), normal actions may become questionable and may even be illegal.

If the decisions were made more openly, instead of behind closed doors, there wouldn’t be a question. Now the public is left to wonder how mismanaged is the Mountain Accord process. Open meetings and vigorous public engagement always result in better decisions. But it appears that in the case of the Mountain Accord, the public was disrespectfully discouraged from participating.

Marie Pate Taylor, former Salt Lake City planning commissioner, is a member of the AIA Government Affairs Committee and National Ski Patrol.