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Utah clean-air initiative short on openness?

Published June 25, 2013 10:03 am

UCAIR • Critics say nonprofit clouded by conflict of interest and lack of transparency.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Herbert administration created the Utah Clean Air (UCAIR) Partnership last year to help clear up the "gunky" air that sometimes blocks out the winter sunshine for days and even weeks at a time.

The idea was to get everyone working together — from ordinary Utahns to government leaders and captains of industry — to voluntarily reduce smokestack emissions or car trips or whatever else to help keep the skies smog-free.

This month, Herbert announced the partnership had morphed into a nonprofit — an odd private-public creature that has good-government advocates raising their eyebrows and wondering if UCAIR is less solution than problem.

Spun off from Herbert's original partnership with money appropriated by the Legislature, the "independent" nonprofit is guided by a governing board filled with government, industry, academia and nonprofit representatives who are seeking donations to pay for their clean-air work while relying on government resources to accomplish its goals. And some of those donations could come from the very smokestack companies that so many Utahns blame for poor air quality.

The controversy comes at a time of hightened attention to conflict-of-interest issues in Utah, where Attorney General John Swallow faces accusations that he was raising money from people whom his office is charged with regulating.

The potential conflicts of interests, coupled with a nonprofit status that requires little transparency, is cause for concern, said David Irvine of Utahns for Ethical Government. He pointed to Herbert administration officials who also serve on the nonprofit's board.

"They shouldn't be on these boards," he said, "if they have a regulatory or policy responsibility on the same issues."

Here are some of the reasons supporters are enthused about UCAIR and critics are uneasy with it:

• The treasurer of UCAIR's governing board, Amanda Smith, is also the state's top environmental regulator, who oversees laws such as Utah's Air Conservation Act, the state equivalent of the federal Clean Air Act. Under new regulations enacted last year, she has the final word on permit decisions and enforcement actions regarding hundreds of companies with pollution permits — companies that might be asked by UCAIR for donations.

• The board chairman is Steve Sands, who is also chairman of the air-quality board and director of energy programs at Kennecott Utah Copper, the state's largest polluter, a company ranked second on the nation's Toxics Release Inventory and a leader in pollution controls.

• Four members of UCAIR's 11-member board also serve on the Utah Air Quality Board, which develops the state's pollution-control policies.

• Three board members are Herbert political appointees: Department of Environmental Quality Director Smith, Herbert environmental adviser Alan Matheson and Herbert Deputy Chief of Staff Ally Isom. Also, the organization's official place of business address is listed as DEQ headquarters in Salt Lake City, and its registered agent is a DEQ employee.

• Last winter, the Herbert administration requested $50,000 for UCAIR and the Legislature appropriated it, even while cutting DEQ's budget.

• Because it is incorporated as a nonprofit, UCAIR is not subject to sunshine laws. That means it is not required to comply with open-meeting laws or detail where its funding comes from or where it goes. Even a listing of the board members is not available on the organization's Web page, although the names are included on incorporation papers filed with the state Division of Corporations and Commercial Code last summer.

At a media kickoff event for the transformed UCAIR earlier this month, Matheson said none of the governor's staff, including Smith, the treasurer, will be raising money for the organization. He vowed transparency, insisting meetings are "open to all comers."

"It's an exciting ... unusual and unprecedented organization," he said after the recent news conference. "This is a way to leverage resources from the public and private sectors to accomplish a goal."

He brushed aside the idea of conflicts of interest on the board, noting that Herbert administration staffers serve on many kinds of nonprofit board — as citizens. And incorporation papers show the administration members on the board use their home addresses instead of their workday ones.

In fact, Matheson said, the UCAIR board's diversity is its power. "This is, by its very nature," he said, "designed to be a partnership."

Smith said her role with UCAIR — which she confirmed will not include any fundraising — is important to leverage the strengths of both the nonprofit and her agency, which has communication and pollution specialists who have expertise that will be valuable to the clean-air effort. She also said her involvement is a sign that Herbert has made air quality a high priority.

"I understand the people might perceive there is a conflict," she said, "but I think there are enough safeguards in place."

Michelle Hofmann, founder of the health advocacy group Breathe Utah, agreed that UCAIR has big potential because of its high-caliber leaders and its access to the resources of the DEQ.

"I'm really anxious to do partnerships with them in the future," said Hofmann, who serves on UCAIR's board, "especially the education part."

The Herbert administration has been fumbling for an effective response to Utah's pollution. Especially bad episodes last winter gave Utah a smoggy black eye as angry locals staged weekly Capitol rallies to protest inaction by leaders; and ski vacationers, Sundance film festival attendees and Outdoor Retailer conventioneers found a Salt Lake Valley in a filthy haze.

Smith has said her office barely has enough funding to handle regulatory duties, let alone the sort of robust public education campaign and a best-practices program that UCAIR is aiming for. The Legislature not only failed to act last winter on a bill to provide $50,000 funding for a new, Web-based clearinghouse for air-quality information but also signed off another $228,000 cut to DEQ's state funding, including some from the Division of Air Quality.

Dixie Huefner is among those worried about conflict of interest and UCAIR. A member of the Utah Citizens' Counsel, an independent, nonpartisan good-government group, she explains that while she wants less pollution, she also wants UCAIR to ensure its operations are transparent.

"UCAIR, even with the good people on it, needs to establish its integrity, carefully avoiding conflicts of interest and acting with transparency," she said. "Its rules and procedures must build confidence in its objectivity. To build public trust it must disclose its funding sources."

Good-government activist Claire Geddes agrees, saying government-private partnerships like these have a history of favoring insiders.

"I can see a multitude of conflicts of interest from this" UCAIR model, she added.

"You can't use public funds and public resources for private purposes," she said. "It's like being kinda pregnant."

fahys@sltrib.com

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