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Utah Inland Port board subcommittees have been meeting behind closed doors

The meetings are allowed under Utah law, but critics hope doors will open to 'build trust'

FILE - A section of land looking southeast at 7200 West and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.
FILE - A section of land looking southeast at 7200 West and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid ongoing calls for transparency and frustration from concerned residents, members of the Utah Inland Port Authority board have been meeting behind closed doors in preparation for the full board's second meeting, expected for later this month.

Because the three subcommittees are each made up of four or five members of the port authority's 11-member board, they don't constitute a quorum, so the meetings aren't required to be open to the public under the state's Open and Public Meetings Act.

But the closed meetings have still irked community members who have ongoing concerns about the authority's transparency.

"It's been very frustrating," Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council.

Owen said there continues to be a great deal of "distrust" from west-side residents and other concerned community members when it comes to the Utah Inland Port Authority because of the lack of public involvement during its creation by the Utah Legislature.

"Having closed-door meetings, it doesn't build any trust," Owen said.

While the subcommittees aren't required under state law to be open, Owen said it would help to build trust with the community if leaders chose to open their doors.

"Sometimes, when trust is broken, it takes a lot of work to make up for the loss of trust. And to do that means more than a bouquet of flowers or a box of candy," Owen said.

Following the law

Inland port authority board and subcommittee leaders say they are striving to be transparent as the port authority gears up for business — and even though the subcommittees are closed, they will be required to report to the full Utah Inland Port Authority in its meetings, which are open.

They also point out no action can be taken in the subcommittees because a quorum won't be present.

The three subcommittees are divided up by three different topics: one to work on the port authority's budget and business plan, one to focus on how to use the tax revenue that will be collected in the port authority's jurisdiction as it's developed for project incentives, and one to conduct a search for the port authority's future executive director.

In response to concerns about the closed subcommittees, Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority board and Salt Lake Chamber president, said "It's important we follow the law" and not "create our own exceptions (to the law) when they don't need to be open."

"We'll follow the law," Miller said. "(What) better way can you build public trust than by following the law as opposed to saying we'll just let people arbitrarily and randomly decide whether (the meetings) will be open or not?"

It's also not unusual for governmental entities at state and local levels to close subcommittee meetings, Miller pointed out.

However, some entities, including Salt Lake County, have opened their subcommittees — a point made by inland port authority board member and Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen at the port authority's first meeting last month.

"I think we owe it to ourselves and to the public to have those meetings open," Jensen said. "If people want to come in and hear the same research we're going to do here, then so be it."

Jensen said if the subcommittees are going to discuss topics that can be discussed in a closed session under the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act — including topics such as real estate or personnel — then the subcommittee could move into closed session.

However, board members including Miller and Carlos Braceras, director of the Utah Department of Transportation, pointed out opening all subcommittees on default would put more of a burden on staff to publicly notice each meeting — especially when the subcommittee would need to be closed anyway because they're dealing with topics that would need to be discussed in a closed session.

For example, the subcommittee tasked with the search for an executive director would most likely need to be closed the majority of the time because it would be dealing with a hiring and personnel issue.

'Tried and true law'

Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, who is chairman of the subcommittee focused on the port authority's tax differential, didn't rule out opening future subcommittees, but said the default, for now, has been set with following the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act and the specification that meetings without a quorum can be closed.

"There is always concern anytime you create a standard above what is a very tried and true law, which the Open and Public Meetings Act is," he said. "So when you have a tried and true law, you need to be very thoughtful about creating any standard above or below that."

However, Hart said "there was a strong feeling" among subcommittee members that "these discussions really are brought back before the full board for presentation and conversation in a public meeting."

"The voices of those that would like these meetings to be public have definitely been heard," Hart said. "We want to be as transparent as possible, so we want as much conversation as possible to happen in the public meeting as opposed to subcommittee meetings."

Hart said whether the subcommittees open in the future "is a conversation for the full board to have and really talk about to be thoughtful about what the board should do above and beyond" the state's open meetings laws.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity who outspoken against the inland port, said she hopes the subcommittees will be open in the future.

She noted the subcommittees are where board members will be discussing issues in greater detail than when they come before the full board.

"The more open they can be, I think the better this process is going to be for everybody," Seed said.

Closed discussions

In response to questions about what happened during this week's closed-door meetings, Hart said his subcommittee focused on understanding HB2001 as it relates to the port authority's ability to capture and use tax increment and how to implement it.

Miller, who heads up the subcommittee for the authority's budget and business plan, said committee members discussed how much money was provided to the authority under state statute and how it needs to be spent.

The port authority will be working with nearly $2 million, including $475,000 for the creation of its economic business plan and $1.5 million to set up the organization, which includes hiring an executive director and other staff, Miller said. He noted his committee will be making a "full report" of their meeting to the port authority board at its next meeting.

The port authority board was previously scheduled to meet next week on Thursday, but Miller said scheduling conflicts have caused them to push the meeting to the last week of August. He said an agenda should be posted that week once details are sorted out.

Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who heads up the subcommittee tasked with finding the port authority's executive director, did not return a request for comment Friday.