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Inland port board member raises warning about not-noticed vote to negotiate deal with Stadler Rail

Rep. Francis D. Gibson speaks on the Utah Inland Port Authority Bill that he sponsored as Utah Legislators gather at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City for a special session on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.
Rep. Francis D. Gibson speaks on the Utah Inland Port Authority Bill that he is sponsored as Utah Legislators gather at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City for a special session on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. The controversial Utah Inland Port Authority board has hit yet another "speed bump."
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The controversial Utah Inland Port Authority board has hit yet another "speed bump."

It's been less than a week since the board voted, despite pushback, to not create higher standards than what Utah's open meetings law sets out and instead kept its subcommittee meetings closed — yet already a Salt Lake City board member is expressing concerns the board is straying from the state's open meeting law requirements.

Lara Fritts, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's economic development director, sent a letter Tuesday afternoon to fellow port board members raising concerns about the board's recent vote to negotiate a tax deal with Stadler Rail — the rail car manufacturer that already struck a deal with the city earlier this year to expand its headquarters.

At the time of the deal, there was a caveat acknowledging the deal could potentially be undone by the port authority since it has the power to take the city's portion of the property's tax increment.

Biskupski — who has been at odds with state leaders and even her own council over the controversial board tasked with creating a global trade area in Salt Lake City's undeveloped northwest — mentioned the letter in front of the Salt Lake City Council Tuesday evening while echoing concerns of residents and advocacy groups that have protested the port authority board's closed-door subcommittee meetings.

"My concern and that shared by the public is that the inland port board is and will continue to conduct the vast majority of business behind closed doors and then only provide the public a cursory input prior to coming together as a board to vote, which is what we are witnessing," Biskupski said, "and I'm not sure what it will take to change that trajectory."

Biskupski then announced "just today" Fritts had sent a letter to Derek Miller, the board's chairman and president of the Salt Lake Chamber, saying she shares Fritts' concerns.

In the lengthy letter, obtained by the Deseret News Tuesday evening, Fritts decried the board's vote in last week's meeting to direct the Governor's Office of Economic Development to move forward with negotiations on behalf of the port authority to strike a tax differential deal for Stadler Rail.

Fritts wrote that "discussion and decision-making … was not carried out in accordance with the Utah and Public Meetings Act," noting that the law "prevents a body from taking final action on an item in a public meeting unless that item is publicly noticed on a meeting agenda.

"While GOED might not legally need the port authority's consent to negotiate incentives with Stadler, the fact there was a vote, after failure to add that item to the agenda, left me, and possibly other board members, and the public, unprepared to have an important discussion about how tax differential deals will be structured," Fritts wrote.

Fritts was the lone dissenter in the vote, which wasn't included on the agenda before board member Stuart Clason, Salt Lake County's regional economic development director, made a motion after the board's discussion on whether to keep subcommittees closed to instruct GOED to negotiate with Stadler.

"The lack of transparency and rushed nature of these actions could harm the board's progress and create uncertainty in the development community as more project's come forward," Fritts wrote in her letter, meant to elaborate on her "no" vote.

Miller said in a text message later Tuesday evening that board leaders "are looking at the letter."

"If Lara is correct and this action was taken out of order, the board can easily remedy that at the next public meeting," Miller said.

City Councilman James Rogers, a Salt Lake City board member who voted in favor of the port authority's negotiations with Stadler, said in an interview Tuesday the vote was a "hiccup" and will likely be "remedied at the next meeting."

"Things do happen," Rogers said, noting that "it's a brand new board" that still doesn't have any staff hired, so "it's just one of those things."

"We're just new at it," he said. "No one caught it before it was too late. It's been brought up … and we're in the process of remedying it."

"It's just a speed bump. It's been a process that has a lot of speed bumps," Rogers added, noting the port authority's false start earlier this year. "This is just a small one, in my opinion, that I think we'll move forward and get over it and get some training on open meetings."

More than 160 groups and individuals, including Biskupski, signed a letter last week urging the port authority board to increase transparency by opening its subcommittees, even though the subcommittees technically aren't required to be open because a quorum of the 11-member board is not present.

Biskupski brought up Fritts' letter during the City Council's second of three "fact-finding" work sessions planned ahead of a Sept. 18 public hearing to gather feedback from residents before the city provides recommendations to the port authority board.

Prior to Biskupski's comments, Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, presented to the City Council her recommendations that the port authority proceed "carefully" and take the time to inform decisions by investing in "data analysis" that could be provided by the policy institute.

Gochnour also urged political leaders to "avoid controversy" to make the inland port a success.

"In many ways, controversy is the enemy of vision because it takes resources away from the difficult task of vision making," she said.

"I see no value in perpetual fighting between the city and the state," Gochnour added, noting that the inland port project is "so large" and "requires so much backing that there is a clear state interest here."

"I think that staying at the table, being a productive partner, disagreeing but doing it in an agreeable way, and trying not to air things out publicly, but doing them behind the scenes, I think that's totally in the state's and city's interest," she said.