Utah Inland Port shake-up: Executive director is out — sort of

Jack Hedge instead will become president and work as “Mr. Outside” as the embattled port authority seeks a new executive director to be “Mr. Inside.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge in Salt Lake City on Thursday Aug. 15, 2019. He will shift duties and become the port authority president.

The Utah Inland Port Authority is about to post a “help wanted” ad for a new executive director.

Jack Hedge has held that role for three tumultuous years. Under his leadership, the port authority has faced persistent protests from Salt Lake City residents and environmental groups. It has been bombarded with calls for more transparency. It has battled a lawsuit with Salt Lake City over its tax revenue, a case that currently sits before the Utah Supreme Court. It has had trouble getting one of its biggest projects off the ground — a $53 million transloading facility — that also doesn’t appear to have buy-in from Union Pacific, a key partner. It potentially derailed a federal grant an area rail company secured to improve traffic in the Poplar Grove neighborhood. And it issued a $2 million no-bid contract.

Hedge appeared to hint at some of the controversy at a port authority board meeting Thursday, held at the Utah Capitol, as he discussed a reshuffling of the executive team.

“As always, with this organization,” he said, “... there’s always a lot of speculation and misinformation that continues to swirl around.”

Hedge isn’t departing port authority leadership, however. Instead, he’ll take up a new role as president, primarily focusing on national and international partnerships. The board plans to post a job listing for a next executive director Monday, according to a Friday news release.

Hedge described his new position as “Mr. Outside” and the “brand” of the port authority. The new executive director, meanwhile, would be “Mr. Inside.”

“Someone who can help navigate the politics and has the local connections, the local ties, to really help take us to this next level,” Hedge said, “... a Mr. Inside who can better help navigate the halls of this building, the relationships within this building, and within the city and within different stakeholder groups and community groups.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chelsie Kemper at a rally against the Utah Inland Port at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. The port will be getting a new executive director.

It’s unclear how the new leadership role will affect the port authority’s budget. Hedge was paid $329,720 in wages and benefits last year.

The port boss added that his staff is “spread too thin” and said the sooner the board can hire a new executive director, the better.

“It’s a good time to to take advantage of where we are in this moment and try to move things along,” Hedge said, “because otherwise it’s destabilizing, and it undermines morale and it undermines the vision and mission of the port authority.”

The Utah Legislature restructured the port authority board last winter, whittling it down to fewer members with more business experience. And it doesn’t seem the new board is entirely pleased with the port authority’s performance to date.

At their first meeting last month, board members called for a legislative audit of the port authority and a review of all its contracts. While they praised Hedge for his “humility” Thursday and his efforts to build up port authority staff, they didn’t completely soft-pedal their feedback.

“Any new organization along the way is going to make some mistakes,” said board member Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. “Certainly, this organization did, but it’s what makes us better. ... Now we can learn from them and continue to move forward.

Board members also emphasized their efforts to better engage with community members and taxpayers, including allowing virtual participation and posting meeting materials in advance.

“We talked a lot about this as a board, how important it is for us to be transparent and accountable to the public,” said board Chair Miles Hansen. “... That is absolutely critical. And we take very seriously the public comment feedback that we’ve received.”

When the time came for public comment Thursday, however, board members allowed only three people to speak, limited to two minutes each. They then voted to go into closed session.