Critics decry lack of public input, debate in rushing through legislation for massive Utah trade hub known as the inland port

Rep. Christine F Watkins, center, R-Price, watches a vote on the House floor with other lawmakers during a special session at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday, April 18, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers are overruling the governor on a pair of a pair of issues about the balance of power within the overwhelmingly GOP state, deepening an intra-party power struggle. Lawmakers used a special session on Wednesday to override Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's veto of two measures that he says encroach on his executive authority. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

With 23 minutes left in the only hearing held on changes to the controversial inland port bill, which state leaders have described as the most important economic development project in Utah history, the committee chairman opened the meeting up for public comment and made an announcement.

People who came to the 10:30 a.m. Wednesday hearing would have one minute apiece to speak their minds, Sen. Curt Bramble, a Provo Republican who conducted the meeting, told them just hours before the full Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill that had been made public only 48 hours earlier.

“Really?” Dorothy Owen, an audience member in the heavily attended hearing, asked him.

Time was running short on a day packed with bills that would change several tax laws, an alcohol fix and the newly created and controversial Utah Inland Port. It was made shorter because the committee spent 45 minutes hearing about peer-to-peer storage rentals, an item not up for debate during the special session.

Bramble would later extend the hearing, but not before limiting speakers to 60 seconds each.

Owen, chair of the Westpointe Community Council, who was first to grab the microphone, didn’t get to any of her points before the buzzer went off. She was out of time.

“When it happens you feel like you got punched in the gut,” Owen told The Tribune on Thursday.

Had she had more time to speak, Owen, a former budget analyst for the state, would have run through what she viewed as the good, the bad and the unaddressed issues in the law and proposed changes.

Why, she would have asked, did lawmakers remove from the bill language that would require the new inland port authority to “promote a high quality of life for residents in the area” of the planned massive trade and transportation hub?

That language was in the bill when the Senate first passed it last winter, but was removed when the House released and pushed through its own version on the eve of the last day of the legislative session in March. The quality of life provision was never restored, and Owen still wants to know why.

“There are now 15 objectives for the inland port,” Owen said Thursday. “They’re all about economic development – making money.”

“Why would anybody think that maintaining a high quality of life was a controversial objective?” she asked.

The amendments that passed Wednesday in a three-hour special session represented a compromise between the Salt Lake City Council and top state politicians – but not the mayor – after six weeks of closed-door discussions.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski had withdrawn from the negotiations, which primarily took place between Gov. Gary Herbert, House Speaker Greg Hughes, members of the City Council and staff for all groups.

Biskupski had tried her own closed-door negotiations with Herbert. But those broke down in May, days before Herbert was prepared to call lawmakers into session to pass changes to the bill. She’s opposed all efforts since, saying policymakers should start over from scratch.

In addition to taking issue with specific provisions – and omissions – of the latest version of the law, some people focused on the project are taking issue with what they say is the rushed process used to come up with it.

Biskupski wants to know why the state has spent years studying what will happen at the Point of the Mountain in Draper, once the prison is moved into the boundaries of the inland port, but not the inland port, which affects about a quarter of the land in Salt Lake City.

“The community I represent has been desperately asking for a very transparent and open process similar to Point of the Mountain, of which we have not been granted,” Biskupski said.

Most of those who spoke at the lone public comment period viewed the bill as an improvement over the hastily passed version from last March. Still, they lamented what could have happened had legislators included the public during negotiations.

Bramble said he didn’t know the bill was so divisive.

“Why did we set the agenda the way we did?” Bramble said. “Because we didn’t see that there was going to be the controversy on the bill that was represented to be consensus between Salt Lake City, the governor and the Legislature.”

Residents on the city’s west side had organized and held their own meeting and got Sen. Jerry Stevenson, the bill’s co-sponsor, to attend and answer questions about a yet-to-be-finished bill. That meeting took place while state leaders who strongly support the state’s role over the area’s development and the City Council members who were trying to make improvements were finalizing a private draft of the bill.

“It’s very stressful for us to be engaged in a sham process,” said Deeda Seed, a former City Council member and organizer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “On such an important issue that affects so many people. It was just really hard and demoralizing.”

After announcing he’d called a special session to pass the port bill and changes to state tax policy on Monday, Herbert endorsed the process leading up to it.

“Public policy is developed in many different ways and eventually culminates with the Legislature passing a law, developing policy,” Herbert said. “This is certainly a way to do it. I feel good about where we’re at now.”

Wednesday’s abbreviated hearing and quick vote, Owen said, didn’t represent good public policymaking.

“Special sessions by their nature are ... rushed, hurried, curtailed, not a public process,” she said. “Is this good public policy? It is not good public policy to formulate the people’s business behind closed doors.”