It was a crystallizing moment.
At Wednesday’s Inland Port Authority board meeting — as the Utah Highway Patrol was removing protesters — Jeff Hartley, an oil and gas lobbyist, decided to be an official arbiter of what is news.
As Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar was following the scrum, Hartley inserted himself between McKellar and the action and started lecturing her for giving the protesters coverage.
There it was. A never-elected Utah power player mansplaining away other people’s rights. Block a public meeting, and you’ll get hauled off and arrested. Block a member of the press from her constitutionally protected duty, and no one lays a finger on you.
The story of the inland port is one of self-inflicted pain fostered by the arrogance of insiders. The meltdowns at the authority’s last two meetings can be traced to a consistent effort to minimize the very real concerns of the people who will live closest to it, and that minimizing started long ago.
After Salt Lake City had invested years building to it, the Utah Legislature snatched the port away late in last year’s legislative session on the claim that it was too big and too urgent for the city to handle.
And then … nothing. Here we are — 15 months since the bill’s passage — and we still have no firm understanding of what the port is supposed to be.
Yes, the protesters are filling that vacuum with doom, and disrupting meetings will never be a lasting solution. But that’s not to say they won’t turn out to be right. In our maxed-out soup bowl of hydrocarbons, adding hundreds of trucks and trains and jets is, well, just crazy.
And the best argument port proponents can offer is, “Hey, without us, it could be even worse.” Development in that part of the valley is coming anyway, and they say the port authority can best manage the impacts.
But the inland port was not sold as growth mitigation. If it doesn’t increase truck and train traffic beyond what would happen anyway, why is it being described as one of Utah’s greatest economic development opportunities ever? And no matter how green the port’s facilities may be, we are facing years of diesel and jet engines passing through.
If the port authority is the best vehicle for what’s coming, why does it never seem to see what’s coming?
Remember when former House Speaker Greg Hughes thought he would be able to put himself in as port authority czar? Public outcry put that down after it was reported he owned several properties near the port. (Hartley is Hughes’ close ally.)
Then there was the push to close the port authority’s subcommittee meetings to the public. That was so poorly received that the board gave up on subcommittees.
That original bill? Since it passed, the Legislature has gone back to make changes — twice. And now Derek Miller, the port authority chair, says it needs a third revision to make it more Salt Lake City-friendly. The lawsuit the city filed may have something to do with that.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for a consultant’s report to tell us what the port plan is. That report was delayed to get more of the public input they should have gathered before the authority was created.
The inland port may still become a reality, and it may even be a desirable reality, if we are willing to truly mitigate the problems it would inevitably add. The board did take one concrete step this week with the selection of a Los Angeles port executive to run the authority. That’s an opportunity to reset the dial on public interaction.
But the port’s beginnings will always be exhibit A for why leaving the public out is bad governance. If the port operates anywhere close to the garbage process seen so far, we should all get dragged out of the Capitol some day.