Gehrke: Born in the dark, the inland port process needs to come into the light

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Maybe you’ve seen “The Dark Knight Rises,” the Batman movie where our hero fights a villain named Bane.

In one memorable scene, Bane tells Batman: “Ah, you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but blinding!”

Turns out, the same could be said for the board governing the creation of the inland port, the international shipping center envisioned adjacent to Salt Lake City International Airport.

The legislation that created the Inland Port Authority board passed late in the legislative session when House leaders rammed through a bill that hadn’t even been available to the public and never had a hearing.

The same darkness that shrouded the creation of the legislation has carried forward to today, as the board running the project is hurriedly planning how the port will be governed through a series of subcommittees meeting out of the public view.

The work these subcommittees are doing is important. It includes creating a framework for how what ultimately will be tens of millions of public dollars are spent. Another is creating a business plan. One is setting about hiring an executive director to run the operation.

In essence, these cloistered subcommittees are putting flesh on the inland port skeleton the Legislature created and the work they do will have a direct impact on what the port ultimately becomes and how taxpayer money is spent.

But they are doing it without citizen input.

On Wednesday, the board voted 9-2 against opening the subcommittee meetings to the public. The board chairman and Salt Lake Chamber President Derek Miller voted to open the meetings, as did Laura Fitts, the representative of the Salt Lake City airport.

Gov. Gary Herbert told me he believes the board should 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.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has expressed a similar sentiment and more than 160 community groups signed a letter to the board urging them to open the meetings.

Yet the board — backed with an opinion from the attorney general’s office — contends the subcommittees are not subject to Utah’s Open Meetings Act because the subcommittees do not consist of a quorum of the board.

And you know what? They’re probably right. By the letter of the law, they can close the meetings. But that doesn’t mean that they should.

Because the inland port was born in the dark, molded by it, some — myself included — are wary of how this process could unfold. Because of the amount of public money on the line, the vast amounts some companies could make and the political machinations that have already taken place, there is good reason for the public to want to keep a watchful eye on what transpires.

The darkness is not the inland port’s ally. The best way to ensure things are done aboveboard and to build public confidence is to allow the blinding light into the process. Setting the precedent of secrecy right from the start only reinforces the public’s concerns.

The nine members who voted to close the subcommittee meetings contend it will be faster and easier for them to work if they don’t have to navigate a public process. You know, doing the public’s business in public is always such a hassle.

But wouldn’t it be refreshing if, for once in this process, the focus wasn’t on doing what’s fast and easy and instead deciding to do what is right and what best serves the public?

I guess maybe it’s too much to ask that they act a little more like Batman and a little less like Bane.