‘It’s un-American’: Vineyard residents decry changes made by City Council members during their final days in office

Newly elected officials will have a hard time removing a controversial city manager who, along with the mayor, supported the turbulent Utah Lake island-building project.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Waters Edge housing development in Vineyard along the east shore of Utah Lake is pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

The Vineyard City Council met late into the night Wednesday as they tried to cram several contentious measures into one of their last meetings of the year, weeks before half the council members get replaced.

The city posted notice of the meeting exactly 24 hours before it took place, the bare minimum required by state law. Some residents were shocked to see all the proposals included in the meeting’s 200-page agenda packet. One draft resolution made it nearly impossible for the incoming council members to remove the controversial city manager. There was also a hearing about a potential inland port in Vineyard, and two resolutions to make quasi-governmental public infrastructure districts with unelected boards.

“To change the complete power structure and form of city governance after an election that you lost is undemocratic,” said council member-elect Jacob Holdaway in an interview. “It’s un-American. It’s not what the voters voted for. They voted for transparency.”

Holdaway ran for office in the wake of the problematic Lake Restoration Solutions (LRS) effort to dredge Utah Lake and turn it into an island city of half a million people.

Vineyard residents learned last year that Mayor Julie Fullmer had written a letter of support for LRS’s effort to get nearly $1 billion in federal funds from the Environmental Protection Agency. The mayor pledged $5 million in city funds to the project.

Former Utah Lake Authority executive director Eric Ellis also wrote letters in support of LRS, pledging up to $63 million in state funds he did not control, to the alarm of state resource managers. He also pledged taxpayer money granted to the Walkara Way trails and shoreline restoration initiative — a project Holdaway started — without Holdaway’s knowledge.

Ellis asked EPA to keep his letters of support private. When they became public over the fall, Ellis abruptly resigned from the lake authority and took a job as Vineyard’s city manager.

[View an interactive timeline of LRS’s attempt to get millions of dollars for its Utah Lake dredging project]

Under a policy approved by the lame-duck City Council Wednesday night, it will now take all four council members to remove officials like the city manager if the mayor disagrees, instead of a simple majority of three members. One community member called the policy a “power grab.”

Vineyard residents packed the council chambers and overflowed outside, with around 250 attending according to Holdaway’s count.

Attendees demanded to know why they were given so little notice about such significant changes. They said the policy documents were difficult to read and understand. They complained about having to leave Christmas parties and music recitals to voice their concerns. They wondered why all the proposed policies couldn’t wait until January, after new council members take office.

“If this process has been our public due process, then the process needs to change,” said one city resident. “It seems like something is being slipped under the rug, slipped under the door, in a short amount of time.”

During public comment periods, Fullmer interrupted residents and scolded them for clapping, although she allowed clapping when outgoing council members gave farewell speeches.

Departing Council Member Tyce Flake said the sheriff would remove attendees if they didn’t “shut up” after a few outbursts once it was clear a vote on the city manager policy change would move forward.

Fullmer insisted the policy, which requires a supermajority vote instead of a simple majority, didn’t change the “real authority” of the City Council.

“If you don’t feel comfortable with it, that’s OK,” Fullmer told Council Member Mardi Sifuentes after she raised concerns. “If you’re asking me how I feel about it, I feel comfortable with it.”

Sifuentes attempted to postpone the vote, noting she, too, wanted to take the time to learn more and feel “comfortable” with the modification. She did not receive any support from other members.

The meeting also included a public hearing about a potential inland port near Utah Lake, on the east side of the former Geneva Steel site. The council did not allow public comment about the port.

Ben Hart, the Utah Inland Port Authority executive director, made clear his board would not approve any port projects in Vineyard if it did not have support from the new City Council.

“What I’ve heard tonight, and what I’ve seen as I’ve walked through your community, is you are struggling to come to terms with who you are as a city,” Hart said. “The inland port authority is not going to be the reason that this community tears itself apart.”

The council further considered two public infrastructure districts, or PIDs, on the old Geneva Steel site, which is currently vacant ground.

Under the agreement, owners of those parcels totaling around 650 acres would form their own quasi-governmental PID boards and have the authority to borrow up to $1.5 billion. The landowners and their developers would use the funds to build infrastructure like roads and utilities, which they would pay off with increased property taxes over a period of 25 years. The improvements would then get deeded back to Vineyard City.

The city signaled its intent this month to turn the east half of the site into the potential inland port industrial project, although it is unclear whether those plans will move forward.

The west half would become Utah City, a dense mixed-use development that would serve as Vineyard’s downtown core.

Both proposals are controversial for Vineyard residents who sat through Wednesday’s meeting, as well as the two incoming council members.

The council voted to table the PID votes until Dec. 27, mere days before those new members get sworn into office. The meeting ended just after midnight.