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Inland Port board slows down, aims to ‘dispel suspicion’ amid transparency concerns

SHARE Inland Port board slows down, aims to ‘dispel suspicion’ amid transparency concerns

SALT LAKE CITY — The third official meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board marked a change of pace for the powerful state entity tasked with creating what's expected to be the state's largest-ever economic project.

Since even before its controversial creation during the 2018 Legislative session, state leaders have pushed a sense of urgency to build a successful global trade hub in northwest Salt Lake City sooner rather than later.

But Thursday, the inland port board seemed to pump its brakes slightly, taking little action on issues including the authority's nearly $2 million budget, and discussing a longer-than-hoped timeline for the hiring of an executive director.

Although state statute set a Nov. 1 deadline for the authority to hire an executive director, board members said it's likely that deadline will not be met, since it will take months to finish the search. The board also re-voted on last month's decision to negotiate a tax deal with the rail car manufacturer Stadler Rail, after the vote last month was not included on the meeting's agenda.

Wednesday's meeting came amid persistent controversy of the port authority's process thus far, from transparency concerns regarding closed-door subcommittee meetings on issues including tax incentive deals and budget to outcry over lack of detail on how the port would spend nearly $2 million in state funds.

After taking public input on the draft budget, the board continued the public hearing to next month's meeting to take more time on the budget. Board members also briefly discussed addressing critics' concerns with transparency and the aim to have as few closed-door meetings as possible.

Board member Ben Hart, who is deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said none of the port authority's three subcommittees met over the past month except for a brief meeting for the committee tasked with finding an executive director for the port.

"But the feeling is we're not going to do subcommittees, and we're just going to have these discussions in open meetings," Hart told the Deseret News after Thursday's meeting.

Hart said the executive director search is likely going to remain confidential for personnel reasons, but other issues including budget and tax increment "need to be done in the public setting."

"I think the feeling is let's push these conversations to the full board meeting, let's have them here, then we don't have to worry about any confidentiality," he said. "Speaking as one board member, I'm much more in favor of having the conversations here."

Hart said the subcommittees have been characterized "wrongly," and the intent of the board has been to have "general" discussions on what could be considered staff work ahead of the full board meetings — issues that "we weren't afraid to have in the public."

The board's aim now is to "dispel some of this suspicion and do these conversations in a public meeting now," he said. "That's just a better way to go about doing this."

The day before Wednesday's budget hearing, inland port critics blasted the port authority's draft budget for lacking specificity — and Wednesday they brought those criticisms directly to the port board.

"Words mean something," said Richard Holman, a member of the Rose Park Community Council and co-chair of the Westside Coalition. "It's absolutely essential that when we put a budget together, we're clear in exactly what we mean by the terminology we use.

Holman pointed to a $300,000 line item in the draft budget labeled only "community engagement," and he questioned what that meant — whether it would fund "meaningful" community focus groups or a P.R. stunt.

"I hope that when you do that, you actually engage the public in what community engagement means to us," he said. "Because I'm certain it means something different to us than it does to you."

Others including Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, called for funding to specifically be set aside for a study on how an inland port would impact the surrounding environment and the Salt Lake Valley's air quality.

"An environmental health impact study needs to be done, and the money from this budget needs to be allocated for it. If you're not doing that, then you really haven't considered us, the residents of this valley … whose lives and health it will impact," Vasic said.

Derek Miller, chairman of the inland port board and president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, listened in on Wednesday's meeting by phone.

He thanked members of the public for providing feedback on the budget, and noted he believed community engagement is "critical" to the port being a successful project. He also pointed out "all of the environmental issues that were brought up needing study are part of the economic development plan" that is expected to come before the full board in future meetings.

"I would continue to say we're on step probably three or four now of a 100-step process, so I know there are a lot of questions and many members of the public who are eager to get to step 35, 50, 99, so we'll take it one step at a time," he said.

Hart said although some question the draft budget's meaning of "community engagement," the board's intent is not to create a "P.R. campaign."

"I can promise you there is no belief on our part that we could ever brainwash any members of this community," Hart said. "That's not what we're trying to do here … I think what we're talking about here is how do we engage the community and make sure that we're all on the same page."

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City Councilwoman and campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity who has helped spearhead pushback on the inland port, credited board members for slowing down to address concerns.

"The way the meeting was conducted today was clearly in response to all the work the community members have been engaged in trying to get them to open things up," she said. "So it was a tiny step forward."

However, Seed said critics are still wary of how the port authority will be handling future tax increment deals, particularly after board members mentioned that other companies — not just Stadler — have been interested in the project area.

"All of those things we continue to be concerned about," she said. "This is just a really crazy way to do what's supposed to be the biggest project in Utah history."