Delta • In this rural Utah town, there isn’t a Gold’s Gym on every corner. Kids work out at the school or county gym, building roads toward athletic scholarships or away from grim realities.
“A lot of these kids don’t come from great homes,” said Luke Beckstrom, a volunteer junior high wrestling coach. “I have kids come to meets with no food. For some of them, programs like this are the only thing going to keep them out of jail.”
The fear of losing the gyms led community activists to a file lawsuit on Tuesday asking for judicial review of several closed meetings’ legality and a restraining order asking for the Millard County School District to halt any demolition of buildings. A judge signed the restraining order later that day.
Many residents, though, are angry about the decision-making process used to erect the new workout facilities and potentially demolish the old ones.
“It’s our position that the school board acted illegally holding that meeting,” said Steve Maxfield, a Utah political activist heavily involved in the 2011 Utah Legislature repeal of HB477, which limited public access to government records. Maxfield authored the Tuesday lawsuit against the school board. “And, of course, they won’t have any repercussions. No one is looking into it.”
Residents say the two new buildings recently constructed to replace the old ones simply don’t provide enough room for Delta’s nationally ranked youth athletics and club sports. The old gyms are open to the public, and the new ones will be too, but residents worry the school district will regulate their use more heavily and restrict their access.
“It’s all about them just not wanting the old buildings around anymore,” said Casey Shields, another local wrestling coach. “They’re just doing what they want, like always. But we need those gyms for the kids.”
The gyms were previously declared below code for seismic reasons. The school board built the two new multi-million dollar gyms under circumstances that have left residents feeling ignored and left out of what they say should be public decisions.
Last year, Millard County citizens voted against the proposal to finance the new buildings with general public bonds, saying the old buildings were usable and should simply be updated. After the failed vote, the school board decided to pay for the gyms with private funds and lease revenue bonds. In March of 2013, the board called a closed meeting to discuss financing to keep the old gyms and ruled in favor of tearing them down.
“You won’t find many people here in support of tearing the old gyms down,” said Millard county resident Dan Piacitelli. “We didn’t want the new gyms in the first place. We voted it down, and they did it anyway. They’ve been doing this kind of thing for years and getting away with it.”
The Millard County School Board, though, says the action to move away from the public will was legitimate and necessary, citing the fact it discussed lease agreements with the Millard County Commission.
“We spoke to our [assistant] attorney general [Bruce Garner],” said Keith Griffiths, the board’s recorder. “He told us that it’s a landlord/leasee issue, so we could have a closed meeting.”
According to Utah code, a public body such as the school board can only hold closed meetings under special circumstances. Closed meetings about litigation and matters discussing the lease, purchase or exchange of real property are allowed only if the meeting participants will disclose the appraisal or estimated value of the property under consideration, or holding an open meeting would prevent the board from completing the transaction on the “best possible terms,” according to Utah open-meeting law.
Closed meeting agendas are confidential and make some suspicious.
After the new gyms broke ground, Millard County residents flooded the county commission with calls and emails asking to keep the old gyms instead of demolishing them.
“We approached the school board with a few options,” said James Withers, a Millard County commissioner. “We said we’d take over the maintenance and the upkeep if they just kept the liability, but they didn’t go for it.”
Maxfield says even if the school board had legal reason to hold a closed meeting, they still acted in an “underhanded” manner by deciding to go ahead with the new gyms and using the unfamiliar finance option that didn’t require public approval.
The school board says nothing changed after the public voted against the initial request for bonds for new buildings.
“When the bond failed, the issue still remained that we needed to bring the buildings up to code,” said Millard County School District Superintendent David Styler. The superintendent says the cost of retrofitting the old gyms would have been the same as building new ones, so the board sought other ways to finance.
Still, the decision leaves a bitter taste for citizens.
“These guys just do whatever they want,” Shields said. “I’ve had a gut full.”