Utah’s inland-port board votes to keep the doors shut on its committee meetings despite public support for opening them

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this file photo, Derek Miller discusses the North American Free Trade Agreement. Miller, the chairman of the Inland Port Authority board, was one of two board members who voted against maintaining the status quo in keeping subcommittee meetings closed from the public.

Gov. Gary Herbert wants them open. So do more than 160 organizations and individuals, including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Alliance for a Better Utah and a number of community councils.

Nevertheless, the Utah Inland Port Authority board on Wednesday reaffirmed its decision to shut the public out of the meetings of its three subcommittees. The vote was 9-2, with board Chairman Derek Miller and Salt Lake City economic development Director Laura Fritts voting to open them up to the public.

Board members again argued that the subcommittees are not required to be open under the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act, and that exceeding that standard would not be following the law. They also worried that creating restrictions stricter than those outlined in state law would slow their work.

Because subcommittees report back to the full board, members said it’s not necessary to hold their meetings in public to ensure that decisions aren’t being made away from the public eye.

But after a 10-minute report on each closed-door meeting, the board acted unanimously Wednesday to move ahead with recommendations the subcommittees put forth.

One of those groups is working on the process for hiring an executive director. Another is looking at the process the port will follow when handling tax revenue that’s generated as the thousands of acres in northwestern Salt Lake City are developed into an international logistics and manufacturing hub. A third is working on budgeting and a business plan.

Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, said during Wednesday’s post-vote public comment period that he hopes the board won’t become a “rubber stamp” for proposals made behind closed doors. The group, in a news release, urged the board to reconsider its position and called on lawmakers "to re-examine the Open Meetings Law in light of this unfortunate decision.”

Though Miller said he would have liked to see the subcommittee meetings become subject to the same rules as the board’s formal ones, he said that doesn’t mean board members who voted differently from him are against openness.

“There are differences in opinion about the way that we operate," he told The Salt Lake Tribune after the vote. “But the board will continue to operate in a transparent way.”

Evidence of that, he said, was the board’s decision to move public comment to the beginning of a meeting and throughout it, so the community can give its input before the board makes decisions.

As it attempts to form its policies and procedures largely from scratch, the board may have trouble escaping the controversy that led to its creation.

Lawmakers unveiled and passed the bill creating the inland port late on the eve of the final day of the legislative session. City officials, unhappy with the bill, spent the following several months working to find a compromise with the port’s supporters at the Capitol, which they did last month without Biskupski’s involvement.

That history came up again and again during public comment, with one attendee calling it “the utmost example of lack of transparency” and others arguing that keeping the meetings closed isn’t the best way to remedy that controversy.

In addition to closing their doors to the public, the subcommittees do not post notices of upcoming meetings and agendas.

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman, came to the meeting to deliver an open letter from more than 160 organizations and individuals that have requested more transparency and expressed disappointment in the board’s decision.

“We’ve learned through experience that transparency and accountability are critical elements in ensuring the public’s understanding and long-term support, which are essential for the future success of this monumental undertaking,” reads the letter, which Seed passed around at the meeting. “We recognize that binding, official decisions will only be made before the full Board. However, underlying rationales, rejected proposals, and other discussions to reach recommendations at the subcommittee level are invaluable to understanding subsequent actions.”

Herbert also joined calls for transparency on Tuesday, telling The Tribune that the board "should consider having [subcommittee meetings] open only because of the need to be as open and transparent as possible. ... Because of the sensitivity and some of the concern and maybe some of the negativity that’s been out there, having the subcommittees open I don’t think can hurt.”

Miller is a former chief of staff to Herbert and is a close political ally.

Though Miller said he recognized concerns about the inland port’s history, he said he wants to move away from those conversations.

“The inland port is an important project for Utah," he told The Tribune. “And to the extent that we get caught up in the politics of the inland port, whatever they may be, that is distracting us from moving an important project for the state forward. As a board, I would like us to focus on the substance of the inland port and how it can benefit Utah, create Utah jobs and benefit Utah families.”

Columnist Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.