Meeting on controversial new Salt Lake City shipping port starts with high hopes but fizzles out

Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes is shown on the House floor at the Utah state Capitol, Thursday, March 8, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Utah legislators wrap up their 45-day annual session. Lawmakers have already passed more than 400 bills and are expected to churn through about 100 others before adjourning at midnight. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The creation of a massive shipping and receiving district in the northwest corner of Salt Lake City was already off to a rocky start when things got testy Monday morning at the Capitol.

Members of the new board that will oversee work on about 22,000 acres that could also become a hub for manufacturers to build and ship their goods to market planned to meet, elect a chairperson and discuss their goals at a first meeting.

Instead, they decided they should do nothing, and the governor abruptly ended the gathering over concerns that the board hadn’t properly assembled because members hadn’t all submitted conflict-of-interest disclosures and been sworn in.

One member, Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, owns five acres and a warehouse near the planned hub, known as an inland port, Salt Lake County property records show. He resigned because the law creating the port authority bars members from owning property within five miles of the boundaries.

The board includes some of the staunchest supporters of what is called an inland port — a commerce area that can be used to bypass crowded coastal shipping ports — who were eager to get to work.

But after Monday’s false start, they left having accomplished nothing more than a collective promise to meet with all 11 members as soon as possible, perhaps within a month if enough of them can agree to a date.

Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he thought the group could get going and choose a chair.

“I personally believe, and I’m an attorney by training, that we could have moved forward,” Miller said after the meeting. “We had a quorum that was prepared to be sworn in, and with a quorum of that board we could have moved forward. Period.”

For the sake of caution, however, he agreed that maybe the board should wait.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was vocal about hitting pause. He said the group had talked about postponing the meeting altogether but decided it would send the wrong message to the public.

Hughes said he wanted the group to take no action until every member was sworn in and present because he believed doing otherwise would leave the board open to legal challenge.

“We want it to absolutely be above reproach,” said Hughes, who appointed himself to the board.

Two members were missing Monday. Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who represents the area that includes the port, was absent, and West Valley City has yet to appoint its member to the board. While most of the project area is in the capital, expanded boundaries pushed part of it into West Valley City.

“The governor can administer the oath of office at any point,” said legislative counsel John Fellows, who urged caution about convening the first meeting. “The question becomes should you begin making decisions without the full board constituted and functioning?”

The inland-port legislation was substantially and abruptly changed on the eve of the legislative session’s final day, and Salt Lake City officials have been working for changes to the law ever since.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski attended the meeting Monday. She said she wasn’t surprised that the group failed to get off the ground.

“When you create legislation in the last hour of the last day of the session and it’s not vetted publicly, you’re going to have problems like this,” Biskupski said. “I foresee there’ll be even more problems as we move down the road.”

Negotiations between Biskupski and Gov. Gary Herbert broke down in the lead-up to a planned special session last month, and there has been no talk of another session.

Biskupski said she expected any issues to be taken care of during the regular session next January.

That idea has at least one vocal critic: outgoing Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City.

Dabakis joined Hughes in coming up with the beginnings of a compromise, a move applauded by City Council members.

“I’m begging the city, sit down, get the best deal you can,” Dabakis said. “If it’s not good enough, then you’ve got the basis to sue. And if we lose in court, then at least we got a better deal than we have now where everything is against us.

“I don’t understand why the city isn’t sitting down and negotiating right now,” he added. “It just seems like personalities are dictating this whole thing.”