Utah Gov. Gary Herbert huddled last week with air activists for the first time since the start of this harsh winter smog season and the barrage of flak aimed at leaders because of it.
While the meeting was "productive" by all accounts, it also highlighted the ongoing tension between the Herbert administration and his critics demanding action on air pollution as both sides emerged with different takes on their encounter.
It was the Republican governor himself, speaking to reporters the day after the meeting, who remarked on the activists’ style.
He complimented the approach of those who requested the meeting — Cherise Udell, of Utah Moms for Clean Air; Terry Marasco, of the Utah Clean Air Alliance; and Carl Ingwell, organizer of the Gov. Herbert, We Can’t Breathe campaign — for outlining an action plan that includes immediate and long-term strategies for combating the cruddy air.
"It was productive," Herbert said, "because they came and approached it with a respectful way of saying, ‘We have a point of view. We know others have a different point of view on what the solutions are.’ "
He added that the trio "apologized for some of their colleagues because of their lack of professionalism and their kind-of rude approach."
Herbert was flanked at Wednesday’s meeting by his environmental adviser, Alan Matheson, Divison of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird and Department of Environmental Quality Director Amanda Smith — all of them advocates for the state’s UCAIR voluntary clean-air effort. And his remarks echoed comments Smith made in January when she told environmental activists that their tone has been an obstacle to political action.
Udell sounded surprised by what Herbert said to reporters about rude behavior and denied there was any apology. She did say she was struck by the governor’s warmth and receptiveness.
Still, she pointed out, activists protest.
"We’ve tried the super-polite approach," she said. "We’ve tried being super cooperative, but we will only do this for so long. It’s only because we made some noise that we got the meeting."
Activists not at last week’s meeting sparked much of the uproar, backed by thousands of angry Utahns who are fed up with what they perceive as inaction.
After more than three weeks of high-pollution days choking northern Utah this winter, 8,644 people signed a petition last month demanding that Herbert act. Protesters gathered at the Capitol steps three times. During one of the rallies, the so-called Cough-In, state troopers barred a coffin prop from entering Herbert’s waiting room where organizers staged a sit-in.
Udell noted that, as activists see it, it’s "rude" for state leaders to accept air so polluted that schoolchildren can’t go outside for recess and about 2 million Utahns suffer from otherwise-avoidable smog-related health effects.
Some groups, such as Breathe Utah, have kept their distance from the rallies and have worked with lawmakers to craft pollution-related legislation. But it hasn’t gone far.
Still, all sides agree action is needed. The activists who attended Wednesday’s meeting took up Herbert’s invitation to offer solutions. They are polishing a 50-page plan that includes short- and long-term strategies to clear the skies.
Herbert said some were "practical and reasonable" suggestions, while others the activists themselves "acknowledged are kind of radical and probably won’t work."
"Working together," he said, reprising a familiar theme, "I think we can solve the problem."
Robert Gehrke contributed to this article.
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