Inland Port Authority Board faces more criticism over transparency, $2 million budget plan

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) County Councilman Richard Snelgrove attends the 2017 budget presentation by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

The Inland Port Authority Board can’t seem to escape accusations that it’s operating in the shadows.

Nearly a month after the board voted to keep its subcommittee meetings closed to the public, the Salt Lake County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to call for openness.

“The Inland Port Board is in its initial stages, and now is the time for Salt Lake County to go on record that 1) the public must have confidence in the decision-making process and 2) the inland port decision-makers need to know that the public is watching,” said Councilman Richard Snelgrove before the vote.

The resolution, which Snelgrove sponsored and proceeded to read aloud, says that “open and public meetings by governmental bodies strengthens the confidence of the citizenry in government” and that “transparency in government is the best assurance of integrity in office.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams also signed onto the resolution, joining Gov. Gary Herbert and more than 160 organizations and individuals who have previously called for the meetings to open up to the public. A copy of the council’s resolution will be provided to the governor, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes, along with the members of the Inland Port Authority Board.

Councilman Michael Jensen, who serves as the county’s representative on the inland port board, said the body already adopted and follows the Open and Public Meetings Act.

At last month’s meeting, board members argued that subcommittees are not required to be open under the law and that exceeding that standard would not be following the regulations. They also worried that creating rules stricter than those outlined in state law would slow their work.

Jensen said Tuesday that while he’s glad to see the county supporting transparency, the question may no longer be relevant.

“We’re not going to meet as work groups anymore,” he noted, and said the board isn’t sure if it will continue to have standing committees after hiring an executive director in November.

One of the work groups has been working on that hiring process. Another has been 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 trade hub. A third has been working on budgeting and a business plan.

Jensen has faced calls to resign from his position on the board after a recent investigative report from the Attorney General’s Office that ended with no criminal charges but outlined his “troubling” behavior as chief of the Unified Fire Authority. He resigned that post just as an audit began in 2016.

A ‘worrisome’ lack of information

As the Inland Port board prepares to meet Wednesday, a coalition of community, environmental and civic organizations have raised a separate transparency issue, noting that the group’s proposed half-page budget lacks specificity.

“The lack of information surrounding the proposed expenditure of almost $2 million of taxpayer money is very worrisome,” said Deeda Seed, who works with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity and has been helping organize community pushback on the port. “It looks like this budget was sketched out on a napkin. There’s no detail. We don’t know what any of these budget categories entail.”

Derek Miller, the chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, did not respond to a request seeking comment Tuesday morning.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune In this file photo, Inland Port Authority Board Chair Derek Miller discusses the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he says has helped Utah businesses but supports updates to reflect technological changes since the trade pact first was drafted 25 years ago.

The board published its proposed budget by Tuesday morning but didn’t post an agenda outlining how its hearing would move forward until afternoon, causing increased frustration for some.

“It’s the most appalling process I’ve ever witnessed in my 30 years in public life," said Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman, of the process.

The coalition wants to see the board acknowledge concern within the community, provide more details about its budget and fund an investigation into potential environmental harms from development of the port.

“We want them to get serious about truly understanding and analyzing the impacts to the health, safety and quality of life of our west-side residents,” Richard Holman, co-chair of the Westside Coalition, said in a news release.

The release pointed out that $300,000 is budgeted for “community engagement,” which may simply refer to the hiring of a public relations firm.

“Rather than funding a PR firm to sell the port to the public, the Port Authority needs to invest taxpayer dollars in developing a sound analysis of various planning scenarios and their environmental consequences including an Environmental Impact Statement and Health Impact Assessment,” said Dorothy Owen, chair of the Westpointe Community Council. “This analysis can be the foundation of a truly impactful community engagement strategy.”

The Inland Port Authority Board will hold its monthly meeting on Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the state Capitol’s House Office Building, Room 30.