Will there be a special session on controversial port next week? Talks between Salt Lake City and state officials continue but impasse apparently remains

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert talks with the media during his press availability at the State capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday Feb. 15, 2018.

State and Salt Lake City officials met behind closed doors for hours Thursday to see if they could reach an agreement on changes to a controversial international trading hub planned for the city’s northwest corner.

At the end of the day, however, there was still no word of any breakthroughs.

City Council members have been talking with state leaders about changes to the law that was passed in the eleventh hour of the legislative session in March, when lawmakers agreed to set up what will be one of the world’s largest landlocked ports built on about 24,000 acres of city land.

It is billed as the biggest economic development project in Utah history. It also has been among the most hotly disputed political topics this year, with conflicts over how the law was created, landownership by board members, impacts of international tariffs and, now, closed-door negotiations before a possible special session next week.

State and city officials met at the Capitol to determine whether talks that have taken place in the past four months have resulted in a compromise with which City Council members can agree.

“We are making good progress in a working group on the critical issues outlined by the city,” Councilman Derek Kitchen said Thursday. “There’s potential that we’ll come to agreement on these issues. If so, then I imagine [the governor] will call a special session.”

None of the attendees responded to requests for comment after the meeting, which started at 3 p.m. and continued until nearly 5:30 p.m.

The group has discussed draft bills that could address the city’s issues with the law, including taxing, spending and land-use authority the port would have over the city’s land.

Lawmakers are already scheduled to meet next week for interim hearings. When he calls the Legislature into special session, Gov. Gary Herbert typically likes to piggyback on interim hearings, when most legislators are already on Capitol Hill, to cut down on costs of a midyear session.

“There are no firm plans to call a special session,” Paul Edwards wrote in an email Wednesday. “Discussions with the Salt Lake City Council and legislative leadership have been productive, but there is not yet consensus about the need for a special session this month.”

Before they even held the lengthy meeting with Herbert, the group had found a prominent critic: Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who has rejected offers to bring her into the negotiations.

While she’s been working with local officials and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, the Layton Republican whose bill created the port, Biskupski didn’t attend Thursday’s meeting and has called for more transparency and time to discuss the port.

It’s unclear whether that opposition could derail negotiations, as they did in May, when Herbert nearly called lawmakers together to amend the law before he held off because of opposition by Biskupski and City Council members.

There are indications that legislators are preparing for floor sessions, possibly next week.

Members of the Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee held a lengthy meeting Thursday during which they discussed 11 potential tax policy bills that could be considered if Herbert called a special session, which several members said could happen next week.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, met with legislators this week and talked about possible upcoming changes to the port, according to Reps. Joel Briscoe and Marie Poulson, two Salt Lake County Democrats. They said Hughes discussed changes to the port’s sprawling boundaries, as well as the conflict-of-interest barrier for landownership by board members.

Hughes, who had used his appointment authority to put himself on the board, resigned after The Salt Lake Tribune found he owned several apartment buildings within 5 miles of the port boundaries, which the law sought to prevent. City Councilman James Rogers, who is also on the board, also owns a building within that boundary.

Hughes and Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis previously said lawmakers should agree not to take control of the city’s internatinal airport, make clear Great Salt Lake wetlands aren’t part of the boundaries, and require the covering of coal as part of negotiations.

Biskupski and others said the governor, lawmakers and City Council members should hold off on a meeting and wait until next year.

“While I understand there is a desire to move expeditiously, it is clear to me that in order to gain public trust and truly protect Salt Lake City’s interests, this process must be more deliberate, cooperative, and guided by a clear understanding of long-term goals,” Biskupski wrote in a letter Wedneday to Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall.

“Given the current acrimony, now is not the time for us as city leaders to participate in a rushed special session,” she added. “Rather it is time for us to choose to support the requests of our community partners.”

The port’s boundaries created by SB234 include much of the existing warehousing district, plus the area around the international airport and close to the Great Salt Lake’s southern shore and parts of West Valley City.

Residents near the boundaries sent a letter opposing any special session.

“We must improve the transparency and public input aspects of this project,” said Richard Holman, a member of the Westside Coalition. “We object to the lack of open public participation and knowledge of port-related issues, leaving citizens to feel overlooked or, worse, disregarded.”