How Derek Miller became the face of Utah’s two big political controversies

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derek Miller speaks after Governor Gary Herbert, left, condemned the actions of protesters who occupied the Chamber of Commerce Building Tuesday. Herbert spoke at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday July 10, 2019.

When more than 150 protesters swarmed the Salt Lake Chamber building on Tuesday, they came targeting a range of topics: a massive inland distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s west side; national immigration policies; and America’s colonial habits and system of capitalism more generally.

But they were there demanding to speak with only one person.

“Derek Miller,” they chanted, “Salt Lake killer!”

He’s not an elected official, but Miller is among the most prominent figures in Utah politics. Having previously worked as chief of staff to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, he now serves a dual role as the CEO of the state’s primary chamber of commerce and as chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board.

Those twin positions place Miller at the nexus of two of the biggest and most controversial policy discussions in the state: the inland port and tax reform. Both have been marked by discord, confusion and public backlash, while the former bred one of the most violent protests Salt Lake City has seen in recent memory.

Miller, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, acknowledged that he made mistakes regarding tax reform and the inland port. But he said the larger problems stem from breakdowns in communication with the public, and that discussions moving forward should focus on policy rather than personalities.

“This isn’t about me," he said. “I’m not going to make it about me. I happen to be the board chair. In this capacity I’m a citizen volunteer. It’s not my full time job. ... I suppose that, you know, I had the right name that rhymed with killer, so that’s the unfortunate thing with ‘Miller’.”

Utah’s inland port: ‘A lot of missteps’

When Miller was appointed by Herbert to serve as chairman of the inland port board, he stepped into what was already a politically fraught space. The bill creating the board and laying the groundwork for an eventual port was unveiled and passed by Republican lawmakers over the objections of Salt Lake City leaders with little debate in the final hours of the 2018 legislative session.

That bill gave control of the city’s zoning and taxing authority to the board to create the port, a planned distribution hub for goods to be imported and exported via rail, truck and air and that has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project.

A year and a half later, there’s no clear vision of what the inland port will actually look like, pending completion of a business plan and an environmental impact statement expected to come later this year.

Activists hate the project, which they worry will increase air pollution and truck traffic and damage the already fragile environment near the Great Salt Lake — and they also are critical of Miller’s leadership and response to their many concerns.

“We heard this from protesters this week that people feel they’re not being heard,” said Deeda Seed, an anti-port activist with Stop the Polluting Port, which was not involved in Tuesday’s protest. “And as a board chair, [Miller] is in a position to do something about that. But he hasn’t. So that’s a concern.”

Miller and others on the board counter that they have created an extensive public process to generate input, with a stakeholder meeting underway at the time the demonstration on Tuesday became rowdy.

In a statement denouncing the protest, Miller was the first to suggest it was an act of terrorism — a depiction later picked up by the governor. Besides, Miller argued, “It is important to make it clear that there is no connection between the Salt Lake Chamber and the inland port project. The targeting of chamber property and employees was senseless and outrageous."

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Police struggle with protesters for control of a door at the Salt Lake Chamber building on Tuesday July 9, 2019.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski agreed to participate in a joint news conference with the governor calling for civility in the wake of the violent port protest, but then bailed out and held her own separate session with reporters. She complained of a “bait and switch” but wouldn’t say more.

The governor’s office, in a written statement, said the reason was simple: “[Biskupski] refused to be at the same event as Derek Miller.”

In early March, Miller was caught on tape criticizing Biskupski in a whispered conversation with city Councilman James Rogers, the vice chairman of the port board. While Miller defended his comments as simple speculation on the mayor’s engagement in the inland port process, both the mayor and advocates opposed to the port condemned their conversation.

Biskupski told The Tribune at the time that she viewed it as evidence of “two leaders playing politics with our community.”

A few weeks later, Miller was forced to explain another controversy. This time an email became public that the Salt Lake Chamber had sent last year inviting a national rail company to pay $10,000 to sit on an “exclusive” committee of businesses seeking to help shape the future port development.

Central to the debacle was whether Miller’s dual role as chairman of the port board — where he influences policy and agendas and speaks often on behalf of the board — and as CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber — which lobbies on behalf of Utah’s business community — constituted a conflict of interest. Some also wondered if the chamber’s request for payment in exchange for a spot on the committee amounted to “pay for play” politics.

A chamber spokeswoman at the time blamed the fundraising scheme on an unnamed staff member, saying Miller was unaware that his name had been used. He concedes that the program was a mistake and one that had been corrected.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Protesters occupy the Salt Lake Chamber offices, some carrying signs and chanting Derek Miller's name, Tuesday, July 9, 2019.

At Tuesday’s protest, multiple demonstrators carried signs that said “Derek Miller, selling our communities for $10,000 a seat.” Earlier protests led to the cancellation of one inland port board meeting (a move that some Utah lawmakers have privately described as a mistake) and the disruption of another.

“There have been a lot of missteps, and I think that’s a fair thing to say,” Seed said of Miller’s leadership. “We want someone [as chair] who’s deeply ethical — and I don’t know if he’s that person after I heard the whispering, and then there was the thing with the $10,000. I don’t know. I have questions.”

But some elected officials say they recognize the challenges inherent in Miller’s role and have faith he can move the project forward successfully.

“He’s got a lot of experience, suggesting if anyone can navigate this difficult terrain well it would be Derek," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "I think there have been some missteps at times, but that’s sort of par for the course.”

Tax reform: ‘A rush to judgment’

Near the end of the 2019 legislative session, Utahns got their first look at HB441, a much-discussed but little-seen attempt to modernize the state’s tax code by significantly broadening the sales taxes applied to service-oriented businesses from lawn care and haircuts to Uber and Lyft.

The reaction was swift, loud and overwhelmingly negative, with business owners and anti-tax advocates warning the bill could bankrupt Utahns and the broader state economy by creating a cascading chain of new taxation.

But among the proposal’s earliest and unabashed supporters was Miller, who issued a statement within 24 hours of HB441′s public release endorsing it on behalf of the Salt Lake Chamber.

“HB 441 is a monumental step forward in ensuring Utah continues to lead the nation in economic growth,” Miller said.

Exactly one week later, beleaguered legislative leaders and the governor announced that tax reform would be put on hold to allow for continued discussion, this time with more public input. That same day, Miller took credit for the Legislature’s change of heart in a new statement that reversed his prior endorsement of HB441.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Jim Ferrin, a financial adviser, speaks out against the sweeping tax overhaul bill, HB441, during its first public hearing in a committee meeting, March 1, 2019.

Tom Love, founder and president of Love Communications, said his organization is open to a conversation about updating and reforming the tax code. But he said the state’s approach to HB441 was “a horrible mistake” and he remains skeptical — which he describes as healthy — toward the ongoing discussion.

“We’re worried that smart decisions aren’t going to be made and we’re going to be taxed multiple times along a channel for a single client,” said Love, whose company has worked with The Tribune in the past. “We’re really worried about layered and multiple taxation on a single project.”

Love Communications is represented on the Salt Lake Chamber Board of Governors, and Love said he totally disagreed with Miller’s endorsement of HB441.

“I know there were many, many chamber members who were upset with that, and I think that’s why there was a reversal,” Love said. “That [endorsement] was a rush to judgment and I think a mistake on the chamber’s part. And I don’t think they were really listening to their membership, or even asked for comments from their membership.”

Miller said Friday the chamber should have waited until the full details of HB441 were known before stating an opinion on the bill.

Another black eye for the chamber was a private event planned for June with legislative leaders that was to focus on tax reform, and which encouraged participants to make a $2,500 donation to the chamber’s political action committee.

Proceeds from that event were to be shared with the House and Senate leadership political action committees — partisan PACs that help Republicans get elected — according to a flyer distributed to chamber members.

The event raised the same “pay-to-play” complaints as the chamber’s exclusive inland port committee, and was abruptly canceled after news reports exposed it. Legislative leaders said they had known nothing about the fundraising aspect and pulled out. A chamber spokeswoman said the flyer had been “misperceived” and that donations were voluntary — not a requirement for participation.

Miller said the chamber immediately organized focus groups on tax reform among its membership once HB441 was set aside by the Legislature. The findings from those meetings and other feedback from chamber-affiliated businesses have been compiled into a policy report, Miller said, which is currently in draft form but will soon be shared with state leaders.

“There’s no issue right now more important to the business community than tax reform,” Miller said. “So we’re fully engaged.”

Challenges of the inland port

The Inland Port Board has canceled its July and August meetings while its new executive director, Jack Hedge, comes on board, and it is unclear when the group will next convene.

Hedge told The Tribune that he understands why people are concerned about a project that is long on potential impact but short on details today.

“Folks, understandably, have projected sort of their worst fears and imaginings on that vacuum,” Hedge said. “What we’re trying to do is understand what those fears and concerns are so that we can address them appropriately.”

Protest organizers say Tuesday’s violent demonstration was a “learning experience” but that they plan to continue disrupting and opposing the inland port, even escalating their tactics if they still feel unheard.

Miller conceded that it may be difficult to conduct the board’s work with chanting, singing and yelling in the background, and he said he doesn’t have a “definitive” answer for how the body will manage disruptions moving forward. But he said the board plans to continue its work and ramp up its efforts to engage with the public.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Opponents of the planned inland port are escorted out of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board meeting by Utah Highway Patrol officers at the state Capitol, June 5, 2019. The meeting resumed after the disruption, unlike the previous month when protests shut down the meeting.

“Is there anything we would have done differently over the last year? I wish we could have communicated with more clarity the fact that the decision to build the inland port was not made by a board," Miller said. "That decision was made years ago by Salt Lake City, the mayor and the City Council in their master plan and their zoning and property entitlement. I’m hopeful that we can start to get that message out now.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the inland port is a long-term project in its early stages. He said he hopes Utahns can come together and have a respectful dialogue, and that he does not see a need to restructure the port’s leadership.

“Governor Herbert designated Derek Miller to serve as the chair of this board, which is a challenging task to undertake as there are many differing opinions regarding this issue,” Adams said. “We will continue to monitor the inland port project and will be open to future adjustments if necessary.” Miller remains close to Herbert as a friend and unofficial adviser. In a prepared statement, the governor’s office said Herbert has absolute confidence in Miller and his leadership of the inland port board.

“The governor knows Derek Miller is equipped to lead this project in a way that will balance the benefits for Utah’s economy and workers with the needs of the local environment and communities,” the statement reads. “Derek and his team are working tirelessly to gather and adapt to civilly articulated public input, and have already put real measures in place that will secure the building of an environmentally responsible port.”

Miller said he is focused on the substance of the port, particularly the completion of the business plan and the environmental plan, which he hopes will help assuage some of the public’s fears.

“The No. 1 long term is to make sure we have the best, most technologically advanced and most responsible port in the country,” he said. “That’s my No. 1 focus.”

"My No. 2 focus, based on recent events, is the safety and emotional care of the chamber team members based on what they went through, and that’s where, as it relates to the inland port, that’s where my focus is: not on people who would target me.”

Miller is roughly halfway through his two-year appointed term as chairman of the port board. He declined to say whether he expects to serve a second term.

“I’m not focused on that right now,” he said.