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Whistling protesters try to disrupt Utah Inland Port meeting, but board steams ahead after monthslong break

Port authority elects James Rogers as board chairman in place of Derek Miller

SHARE Whistling protesters try to disrupt Utah Inland Port meeting, but board steams ahead after monthslong break
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Utah Highway Patrol troopers remove a woman who was blowing a whistle through a surgical mask and disrupting the Utah Inland Port Authority Board meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As soon as the Utah Inland Port Authority board began its business Thursday, shrill whistles began sounding.

Wearing surgical masks to hide the whistles in their mouths, dozens of protesters sat still in their seats amid the crowd gathered in a committee room, blowing hard in attempt to drown out the voice of board members as they began talking.

It was the first meeting the Utah Inland Port Authority Board has held in five months, ever since the last meeting was disrupted by protesters — followed by a string of other protests, including the storming of the Chamber of Commerce building in July that resulted in violent clashes with police and the arrests of eight people.

As the whistles began, more than a dozen Utah Highway Patrol troopers lining the room began searching for the whistlers, one-by-one weeding out the protesters and escorting them from the room. At least one protester was dragged out after going limp and refusing to move.

Thursday’s meeting was considerably more peaceful than past inland port protests — and it carried on despite the whistles.

Swiftly, at the beginning of the meeting — while many onlookers were distracted by whistlers being escorted out of the room — the board held elections for new board leadership, and the chairman Derek Miller, who is also president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, was replaced by Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers after little discussion.

Miller — who attracted the ire of many anti-port activists who chanted “Derek Miller, Salt Lake killer” while they stormed the chamber building this summer — supported the leadership change.

His dual role as the chamber president and chairman of the board raised pay-to-play questions after the Deseret News obtained marketing emails indicating Miller offered a national rail business a spot on the chamber’s influential and “exclusive International/Inland Port Committee” in exchange for $10,000, the chamber’s membership fee. Miller, while insisting he didn’t believe that email crossed any lines, promised the chamber would take more measures to guard against any risks of real or perceived impropriety.

Rogers, accepting the role as chairman, thanked Miller for his time leading the port board.

“I know it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “It’s a thankless job.”

Rogers told the Deseret News in an interview after Thursday’s meeting he wasn’t taking the role with enthusiasm — but rather because he felt it was important to represent the concerns of his constituents on west-side Salt Lake City.

“I’m not happy about it. I mean, come on. Who wants to be chair of the inland port?” he said. “I don’t think anyone does. But I think for the concerns of my residents, I need to be there.”

Rogers, at one point attempting to quiet outbursts of cheers and applause during the meeting, also faced the brunt of critics frustrated not just with the port authority itself, but also with city leaders for approving a large warehouse development in 4,000 acres of the city’s northwest quadrant, before the port authority was created by the Utah Legislature.

“No port,” shouted Ethan Petersen, a protester with the group Civil Riot who has been arrested multiple times at inland port meetings. “No port, James. Quit your job.”

Thursday’s meeting was comparatively peaceful, but it wasn’t without fiery demands to scrap the proposed inland port from dozens of public speakers, continuing to voice concerns about what impact the port will have on air quality, traffic congestion, the environment, migratory bird populations, and more — all with biting skepticism and distrust that the port authority will build a cutting-edge and environmentally sensitive port, as promised by the authority’s new executive director, Jack Hedge.

Those frustrations also boiled over now with Salt Lake City leaders for past development agreements with northwest quadrant landowners that gave developers a $28 million property tax reimbursement for a warehouse development connected to the city’s already warehouse-heavy International Center. The development, with utility infrastructure big enough to facilitate more development in the area, is seen as the beginnings of an inland port — though the port authority still has yet to approve any plans to design a port or what state leaders have pitched as a global trade hub.

“City Council, you let us come in here with our time and our emotions and caring about the environment, and you let us think we had a say,” shouted Clark Clement. “We didn’t have a say. You led us on. You sat there with a straight face. It’s a charade.”

As Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of the group Stop the Polluting Port, took her seat in front of the board, she urged everyone in opposition to raise their hands and their “Stop the Polluting Port” signs.

“Look at that,” Seed said as a sea of signs rose behind her. “It’s a room full of people who hate this idea. And why do we hate it? Because we’re really worried about the harm it’s going to do to our community.”

But Seed also came somewhat to the defense of the City Council — but not letting them off the hook, either. She told board member Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, the lawmaker who sponsored inland port legislation, that it was the state’s pressure that led city leaders to approve a “bad deal.”

“The reason why those development deals were rushed was because the City Council and the city were running ahead of you and your colleagues,” Seed said. “They knew that you wanted to take over this land. They knew there was an inland port proposal out there, so they rushed, and they did a bad job. They negotiated development deals that are really sweetheart deals for the developers.”

“Don’t separate yourself from the city,” Seed told Gibson. “You’re all in this together. And we as citizens are going to hold you accountable for the consequences of this if we can no longer live here.”

Seed’s voice was then drowned out by screams, cheers and applause from the crowd of protesters behind her, before she continued.

“We are in a climate crisis,” Seed said, “and we simply can’t afford to build projects that will contribute to the long term destruction of a healthy environment, so we say, ‘No port,’ right everybody?”

As Seed left her seat, protesters broke out in a chant of “No port, no port, no port.”

Ken Kohler, a protester who was removed from a previous port meeting, was skeptical of Hedge’s comments that Utah could build a “green” port unlike anything else currently seen in the U.S.

“You live in Utah,” Kohler said. “The Legislature here in Utah, the governor, they hate green. They hate everything about green.”

“Except for money!” someone from the crowd shouted.

Hedge, in an interview with reporters after the meeting, said Thursday’s turnout was not unexpected. The purpose of the meetings, he said, is to help people voice their concerns, and he said he’s listening, despite frustrations of those who feel they’re not being heard.

He said there’s widespread “misunderstanding” of where the port authority is in the planning process, and he said the port authority needs to “do a better job of letting people know where we are and what we’re doing,” noting the authority has made no decisions and is just beginning it’s business planning process.

To doubts that a green inland port isn’t possible, Hedge said the “proof will be in the pudding” and technology advancement is making it possible.

“I don’t expect anyone to just believe what I say,” he said. “We’ll have to perform. And part of the first part of performance is doing a good solid plan.”

Asked if “no port” is an option, Hedge said it’s not.

“It’s not an option because the economy continues to grow, population continues to grow,” he said. “So no port, quite frankly, as long as we keep buying stuff, consuming stuff, and the population continues to grow, we need to be able to move the goods and products in that we need to support our economies and frankly, our lives. So no port isn’t practical.”

Contributing: Gretel Kauffman