One arrested at Utah Inland Port meeting at police precinct, which was shut down amid protests

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police stand guard after a meeting of an inland port satellite working group was quickly canceled. The meeting was held at a police precinct in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Aug. 14, 2019.

One person was arrested at an inland port meeting that was relocated to a police precinct Wednesday after protesters publicized their plans to attend. Just minutes after the meeting began, it abruptly ended and attendees were told to leave.

After going through metal detectors, protesters, reporters and interested residents quickly filled the seats in the meeting room, where working group members were expected to address plans to shift the focus of that development from a single site on the northwest side of Salt Lake City to a multisite approach that would include “satellite” spokes in rural areas across the state.

But there weren’t enough seats in the room, and port critic Maura Sanchez spoke up to ask for more to be brought in, interrupting working group chairman Stuart Clason, a former member of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board.

Five police officers moved quickly to escort protester Ethan Petersen, who has been arrested at two previous meetings, from the room. He was standing and was in violation of fire code, they said later.

“We’re just canceling the meeting,” Clason, the Utah Association of Counties’ regional economic development director, said after police intervened.

In the hall, Petersen spoke against the project, decrying its possible impacts on air quality and the environment.

“You’re removing us from a meeting instead of removing the actual criminals from the meeting,” he told police as meeting attendees streamed outside.

Not long after, police forcibly removed port protester Ken Kohler, who was cited and released for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

“I’m a veteran!” the Elders Rising group member exclaimed as police pulled him down the hall.

After he was released, Kohler told The Salt Lake Tribune outside the Pioneer Police Precinct that he was “adamantly” against the port and any satellite ports that may be placed across the valley.

“Because it’s still the same thing," he said. "It will be increasing the traffic in Salina, it will be increasing the accidents in Salina and elsewhere and it will be increasing the pollution. The people that will gain from this are the special interests.”

The meeting was originally planned to take place at 5397 E. Vine St. in Murray but was shifted to Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Precinct at 1040 W. 700 South on Tuesday.

The move to relocate came one month after eight protesters were arrested at a demonstration against the port that devolved into violence at downtown’s Salt Lake Chamber building and was an effort to “secure a safe meeting place where both working group members and the public can engage,” the Utah Inland Port wrote in a Facebook post announcing the change.

Protesters also shut down the Inland Port Authority Board’s April meeting.

Shawn Milne, co-chairman of the satellite port working group and a Tooele County commissioner, said the group plans to reconvene and reschedule its meeting, with the hope of engaging dialogue from the public.

“It’s unfortunate," he said of the closure. "Today we weren’t even able to go through the ground rules.”

Proponents of the inland port, which has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic project, say the creation of a distribution hub where goods can clear customs and then be processed and distributed will connect Utah companies to international markets and boost the state’s economy.

Representatives from Tooele, Weber, Box Elder and Millard counties have expressed support for the so-called hub-and-spoke model, promising development-ready parcels of land and willing communities behind them if the port board brought a hub to their areas.

Opponents of the port and of the satellite model, however, have raised concerns that the inland port would damage the fragile ecosystem near the Great Salt Lake, increase traffic and air pollution and facilitate a pipeline for the transport of fossil fuels across the state.

“The idea that kind of spawned this conversation is [if] the residents in this community are not interested in working with the state, there are ample communities along the Wasatch Front that would like to work with the state,” Clason told The Tribune after the meeting dispersed.

While advocates of the framework say satellite ports would actually address some of protesters’ concerns — leveraging the statewide transportation network to disperse the impact of emissions and traffic problems in Salt Lake County while bringing good jobs to overlooked communities — opponents of the project remain skeptical.

Deeda Seed, an anti-port organizer with the group Stop the Polluting Port, said the protesters had come not to engage in direct action but to get answers to a variety of unknowns about the project. Those questions include what will be exported from the hubs, whether Salt Lake City tax differential money will be used to plan or facilitate development of satellites and what kind of environmental analysis officials plan to do before moving forward with development.

The public needs answers to these questions, Seed said, and she expressed disappointment in the location choice for the meeting, which she said set the wrong tone.

“It’s very intimidating to have a public meeting in a police precinct where you have to go through a metal detector,” she said. “And I think what they’re doing here is, you know, using the public concern as a reason now to hide from the public and I wouldn’t be surprised if they go off and meet somewhere else.”

Salt Lake City Police Department Sgt. Brandon Shearer said it’s not unheard of for public meetings to be held at meeting rooms in its police precincts.

But David Reymann, a media attorney with the firm Parr Brown Gee & Loveless in Salt Lake City, said it struck him as unusual to do so.

“There’s an optical if not actual problem of intimidating people if you schedule meetings at a law enforcement facility," he said. “And that doesn’t seem like it’s the type of thing they should be doing if they want to encourage public access and observation of their business."

Reymann noted that the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act, which he said the working group meetings would be subject to, allows for a public meeting to be moved to an alternative location as long as there’s enough notice, but raised concerns about a lack of space at the meeting.

“Especially if they have alternative locations that can accommodate people, it violates at least the spirit of the [open meetings] act — if not the letter — to select a location that inhibits the public from attending when it should be an open meeting,” he said in a phone interview.

The inland port satellite working group does not have any authority to make decisions around the port project. The full Inland Port Authority Board, with which that power rests, did not convene in July and has not yet scheduled its August meeting.