Auditor says Mountain Accord expenses look OK but transparency questions sent to attorney general

Canyon planning entity has been challenged in court as violating Open and Public Meetings Act.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Monday, August 3, 2015.

The government entities that joined with private businesses to plan for the future of the Wasatch Mountains didn’t appear to improperly spend public money as they paid $7.5 million mostly to consultants.

But they may not have complied with state transparency laws that ensure oversight of public business, and State Auditor John Dougall has referred the issues to the attorney general’s office for investigation.

Dougall released two letters on Tuesday that included welcome news for the groups that worked on the Mountain Accord. The letters showed Dougall found no evidence of financial wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or oversight by the group.

“Given the extremely limited intent language of the Legislature, it appears the appropriated funds were used in accordance with the Legislature’s intent,” Dougall wrote. He added Mountain Accord established clear objectives and didn’t appear to overpay consultants.

The letters continued the ongoing debate over an entity that spent years vetting planning issues in the Wasatch Mountains and is now continuing as the Central Wasatch Commission.

County attorneys and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams contended in an ongoing lawsuit that Mountain Accord wasn’t subject to typical public oversight laws. They argued the accord included private entities that otherwise wouldn’t be subject to transparency laws and asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

Third District Court Judge Laura Scott declined to drop the matter brought by Big Cottonwood Canyon residents. Instead, she ruled in July that Mountain Accord was an entity subject to the Open and Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

Dougall said he reviewed the Mountain Accord in response to requests for audits by four Salt Lake County Council members and two state legislators – Reps. Kim Coleman and Ken Ivory, both West Jordan Republicans.

In his letter to County Councilman Steve DeBry, Dougall wrote the pending lawsuit sought to void “all final actions” taken by Mountain Accord, and that he had already forwarded his concerns over possible open meetings act violations to the attorney general.

“We have given your request for answers regarding Mountain Accord’s compliance with OPMA to the [attorney general’s] Civil Review Committee for investigation,” Dougall wrote the legislators.

Dan Burton, a spokesman for Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes, confirmed the office received Dougall’s request but declined to comment further.

Mountain Accord supporters say there were numerous meetings that were open to the public, and that there are documents available on the organization’s website.

Dougall also wrote that Mountain Accord is subject to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), which grants public access to government documents, and it improperly denied two requests for public information.

“The notion that governments can create a governmental program which is not subject to GRAMA does not appear to us to have basis in law,” Dougall wrote.

McAdams said in a statement in response to Dougall’s letters he welcomed the review’s findings.

“I’m pleased that Auditor Dougall found that Mountain Accord followed proper contracting procedures and satisfactorily monitored progress on objectives established under the contract,” he said. “He also concluded that the state funds were used in accordance with the Legislature’s intent and that payments were reasonable and customary.”

State and local governments created the Central Wasatch Commission to carry out the planning done on the Mountain Accord. The commission includes representatives from Sandy, Cottonwood Heights, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, the Utah Department of Transportation and Park City. A commission meeting scheduled for Sept. 7 was postponed until Oct. 18.