Orem’s decision to pump $24 million into the troubled UTOPIA fiber-optic network is gaining attention, but not because of the amount of money.
Rather, it was the lack of a public hearing — or even formal council vote — to take the action.
The city agreed Tuesday to bond for $24 million, as part of its 2010 commitment to support the network. Orem is one of several Utah cities that are part of the UTOPIA consortium.
But the agreement wasn’t a formal vote of the City Council. The council rather gave its verbal consent to the bond issue, and there was no public hearing to find out if residents wanted the city to go further into debt to support UTOPIA.
Richard B. Manning, the city’s administrative services director, said a public hearing wasn’t necessary because the bonding is part of the city’s $65 million commitment to the network. He said the public would have a chance to weigh in on the issue when the city conducts a public hearing on the 2014 fiscal year budget later this year.
But others think the city should have done a public hearing.
Ryan Roberts, the Utah State Auditor’s local government supervisor, said the city needs to have a public hearing on any budget changes before the money is spent.
Joel Campbell, an associate professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University and a nationally-recognized open-government advocate, said the city’s actions violated the spirit of the Open and Public Meetings Act, at the very least.
“UTOPIA is such a big deal that it warrants an open debate,” Campbell said. “They need to stop playing in the shadows of the law.”
Campbell said the issue should have been put on the agenda as a formal action item, with a public hearing.