‘I’ve never seen anything like it’: In the months since its formation, the Inland Port Authority Board has faced near nonstop chaos

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Inland Port Authority board members Francis Gibson and Nicole Cottle confer during a board meeting, Sept. 26, 2018. Before the Inland Port board met 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 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.

Last week, as the Inland Port Authority Board considered its last agenda item of the night — one that needed to be reconsidered, since it seemed to have been put on the agenda incorrectly at the group’s August meeting — the power went out.

That meant a board that has faced accusations of operating in the shadows was literally working in the dark.

The lights came on a short time later, along with microphones and a tape recorder. But it was a moment emblematic of the chaos the board has faced as it has attempted to build itself up from scratch since the end of July.

“The best analogy I’ve heard is they’re trying to build an airplane at the same time they’re trying to fly it,” said Deeda Seed, who works with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity and has been helping organize community pushback on the port. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The port, a planned distribution hub for goods to be imported and exported via rail, truck and air, will be located on approximately 20,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s westernmost area. It is expected to be the state’s largest-ever economic project.

As the port authority faces continued criticism, its meeting Wednesday may have represented a change of pace. The monthly gathering concluded with little action, and board members appeared to pump the brakes on a project that’s faced constant rush since its conception.

The board created a process for handling requests under the Government Records Access and Management Act but paused on passing its $2 million proposed budget — a half-page document criticized for lack of specificity — until it could add more detail. It’s also working to create rules for conduct at its meetings and hire an executive director, which will likely not happen before the Nov. 1 deadline set in statute.

“We’re on step probably three or four now of a 100-step process, so I know there are a lot of questions and many members of the public who are eager to get to step 35, 50, 99,” said board Chair Derek Miller at Wednesday’s meeting. “So we’ll take it one step at a time.”

Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel for the progressive group Alliance for a Better Utah, attended the meeting Wednesday and said he hopes the difference in pace represents a sign of meaningful change.

“How much they slowed down this past meeting on the budget and different things, I think they really are realizing the concern from the community and also just the impact that this project is going to have and they want to do it right rather than just rush to get it done,” he said.

‘A rushed process’

The inland port has been one of the most consequential and controversial public policy issues this year, in part because lawmakers unveiled and passed with little debate the bill creating it late at night on the eve of the final day of the legislative session. The legislation prompted criticism from Salt Lake City leaders, who viewed it as an inappropriate land- and tax-grab by the state.

That beginning set the port up for a rocky future, Thomas said.

“The struggles that the board has, at least that the public has seen, have just been a reflection of the process that the Legislature used to set it up,” Thomas said. “It was such a rushed process behind closed doors until the very end when they came out with ‘here’s the bill.’ And you saw that happen with the beginning of the inland port [board].”

As the board — responsible for leading economic development in the inland port area — began to form, House Speaker Greg Hughes appointed himself to serve on it. Weeks later, he resigned amid controversy over his property holdings, which were so close to the planned trading hub that they disqualified him from membership.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper facilitators of the Utah Safe Schools Commission unveiled several recommendations the commission is considering to improve campus safety, Wednesday, June 20, 2018 during a press conference at the Utah Capitol.

Issues of transparency seemed to reach a head in August, as the board again came under fire, this time for shuttering meetings of its three subcommittees to the public. The meetings were also not publicly noticed on the state’s public meetings website and residents could not access agendas.

Board members argued that it wasn’t necessary to open those meetings to ensure decisions were facing scrutiny because only the full board had power to take action. But after a 10-minute report on each of the August meetings, the board acted unanimously to move ahead with the subcommittees’ recommendations — voting before hearing public comment from residents on any of the agenda items.

Those problems seemed to have been resolved by Wednesday. As the Salt Lake County Council passed a resolution last week calling on the Port Authority to open its subcommittee meetings, its representative on the board, Councilman Michael Jensen, said those working groups won’t be meeting anymore, and the board held its public comment period before voting.

But the board may still have the threat of a lawsuit hanging over its head. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who has opposed the project from its beginning and opted not to participate in the council’s work to compromise with the Legislature, told a group of city residents at the start of the month that she thinks the legislation creating the inland port is “unconstitutional” and may face legal action.

As residents consider the actions of the Inland Port Authority Board, member Ben Hart, who represents the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, told The Tribune on Wednesday that he hopes they’ll remember the entity is still working to get its legs under it.

That has been misconstrued, he said, as evidence that its members don’t care about residents’ concerns, like ensuring there are studies into the environmental or health impacts of the port.

“That’s absolutely not the case,” he said. “We’ve just got to learn to walk before we can run. And I think right now, we’re at a crawling stage trying to get up to where we can walk. And I think as we do get to a little more developed state, then we’ll be able to address those issues.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Ben Hart, Inland Port Authority board member and representative of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, Sept. 26, 2018. Before the Inland Port board met 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 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.

‘Pushing for more reforms’

Thomas, with Alliance for a Better Utah, said he recognizes that the board is new and said he’s seen improvement as it’s become more established.

“We have high expectations for them because it’s such a huge project,” Thomas said. “It’s going to take a ton of public money, it’s going to change a whole quadrant of the city. … But maybe we shouldn’t be so extremely hard on them for little things. We’ll just keep on pushing for more reforms as they come up and as we see things, and hopefully, little by little, they will be getting better and we think they are — little by little.”

It remains to be seen if the board’s approval Wednesday of a policy outlining a process for dealing with records requests will help clear up confusion. The board does not have its own staff support and has been using resources from Salt Lake County, but there’s still been some uncertainty about who’s responsible for what.

Seed, a resident who has raised concerns about the port process, had trouble finding out where to send her records request for emails between board members. Salt Lake County ultimately fulfilled it — but only after “each Board member conducted the search and provided any records responsive to that search.”

Austin Ritter, an attorney with Parr, Brown, Gee and Loveless, said there’s “nothing in the statute that prohibits” individuals from searching their own emails to fulfill a request.

“But in terms of fair and impartial process, it’s not the most effective practice for achieving those goals,” he said.

At the end of August, The Salt Lake Tribune attempted to obtain the members’ conflict of interest forms and faced a similar challenge in finding out where to submit the request. The newspaper was referred to the House and Senate before being pointed to the governor’s office and then back to the Port Authority. The governor’s office ultimately provided the documents — four of which were missing.

Two board members, the board’s chairman and its legal counsel have said in the past week that they didn’t know where the missing conflict of interest forms would be. Hart said he would make finding the forms a “top priority” after he was informed of the request at Wednesday’s meeting.

But as the port project plows forward, Seed said she’s skeptical that the board has made any meaningful changes.

“It’s like we’re in some kind of weird drama, where people are saying one thing and doing another," she said. “Their rhetoric is reflecting our concerns, but their actions have yet to demonstrate that.”