Utah Inland Port removes west-side representatives from community advisory council without explanation

Salt Lake City leaders say it appears the authority “is still struggling to conduct business in a way that translates as legitimate and transparent.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) In this March 4, 2018 file photo, Westpointe Community Council Board Chairwoman Dorothy Owen speaks about feeling bullied by state government as Utahns concerned about environmental health consequences and community impact from creating a state controlled inland port authority in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant. Owen and Richard Holman, another west side Salt Lake City representative, were recently removed without explanation from an inland port community advisory council.

The Utah Inland Port Authority’s new community advisory council was born, at least in part, out of a desire to help mend the fractured trust between the public and the agency overseeing the embattled distribution hub development.

But just months after its inception, the effort is coming under scrutiny from Salt Lake City leaders and others concerned it could have the opposite effect, after port authority leaders dismissed two west-side community members from the advisory council and a subcommittee dedicated to air quality and the environment.

The removal of Westpointe Community Council Board Chairwoman Dorothy Owen and former Westside Coalition leader Richard Holman — both of whom have been outspoken about the potential harms the port project could have on their community — was done without explanation late last month. And it was one of several concerns Rachel Otto, the Salt Lake City mayor’s chief of staff, and Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers outlined in a recent letter to the board.

Amid questions about how the community advisory council’s members were chosen and allegations from some of those involved that the council and its subcommittees lack organization and assistance from the port, the Salt Lake City leaders wrote that it appeared the authority “is still struggling to conduct business in a way that translates as legitimate and transparent.”

“This was again compounded by the very late release of complicated legislation affecting the Inland Port, about which we as Board members and city officials were also completely in the dark until its release was imminent,” they added. “This approach, in addition to the problems with the [community advisory council] we describe above, is counterproductive to the goal of developing an Inland Port that is an asset to the community.”

Otto and Rogers, who both serve on the 11-member Inland Port Authority Board (Rogers is the current chairman), ended their letter with a request for more dialogue with the authority about the issues they outlined.

In a response dated two days later, port leaders pushed back on their concerns, noting that Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall was heavily involved with negotiations over the bill and that the advisory committee was created in the manner outlined to board members.

They also bristled at the idea that the authority’s actions weren’t coming across as transparent.

“We take offense with your characterization of the Port Authority’s progress, and institutional integrity — particularly the last 18 months since we have been involved,” read the letter from port Executive Director Jack Hedge and Chief Operating Officer Jill Flygare. “We would compare the progress of our very small, but very dedicated team of public servants against any other state or local entity.”

Their letter did not explain the reason for the changes to the environment, air quality and sustainability subcommittee or the removal of Holman and Owen from it and the council at large.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Jack Hedge, executive director of the inland Port Authority, begins a board meeting at the Utah Capitol where a few protesters disrupted the start of the meeting, Oct. 17, 2019.

Dismissed as dissidents?

In the month since Holman and Owen were removed from the committees, they’ve tried unsuccessfully to get answers about why.

Their dismissals came in the form of a Feb. 24 email from Flygare that indicated that the port was appreciative of their “insights and commitment” but had decided to move “in a different direction in regards to the environment, air quality and sustainability subcommittee.”

The full board and subcommittee had only met once at that point.

“We hope that you will continue to engage with the Authority on an individual/personal level,” the note concluded. “Your participation in the [community advisory council] is no longer required.”

The third active member of the committee, Utah Clean Energy Executive Director Sarah Wright, confirmed in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that she didn’t receive such an email and is still a member of the council.

In lieu of an explanation from the port authority, Holman believes he was removed because of a letter he’d sent to state lawmakers three weeks before, in which he raised concerns about the possibility of legislation that could facilitate creation of a rail yard within the inland port site in Salt Lake City.

“Why were members of the west-side community, arguably some of the most vocal and engaged members of the west-side community, dismissed from that effort?” he asked. “I have only one thing to conclude: we were dismissed because of our dissension. We were dismissed because they didn’t like what I wrote to my legislators.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Richard Holman of the Westside Coalition is shown in this Oct. 9, 2019, file photo in Salt Lake City. Holman thinks he was dismissed from a Utah Inland Port Authority committee because he had raised concerns regarding a potential new rail yard in the area.

Owen noted in an interview that she wasn’t a signatory on that email and didn’t want to “make any conjectures” about why she was removed from the board.

“I think that sometimes we in our lives when something happens, we assume that it’s because of something we did,” she said. “Something happened because we did something. And it makes the problem our problem. And in this case, I don’t see it as our problem. I don’t know that we did anything. I can’t say I did something wrong. And it really in my mind is a problem for the inland port authority.”

Flygare said that the membership of the air quality subcommittee and the other three — one focused on workforce, education and training; another on transportation and housing; and the last on arts, culture and development — has been fluid, and that volunteer members have been added and removed to fit the needs of the authority.

Holman and Owen were let go, she told The Tribune, because they had a different idea than the authority did what the subcommittee should be. While the community members wanted it to be more organized and supported by staff, port leaders saw it as more of an informal forum for policy suggestions and other ideas.

“Right at this moment we’re really looking for broad conversations before we get to very specific solutions,” Flygare said. “And they in conversations were really looking to get directly into the weeds, and that’s just not where we are at this time. It became a frustration point.”

At the air quality subcommittee’s first and so far only meeting, Holman asked for a charter that defined the mission of the body. Owen asked for baseline air quality data, as well as information about legislation related to the subcommittee’s topic area and whether there were any budget requests from the port related to air quality, according to a video of the Zoom meeting reviewed by The Tribune.

One point of contention centered on who should take the meeting minutes — staff or the volunteer council members.

“We wanted it to be more formal, [have] more accountability,” Owen acknowledged. “The fact that I wanted minutes kind of summarizes it all. I think we did have a different [idea of what it should be]. I don’t disagree with that. What I was surprised about is that that’s not what they said in their note.”

Flygare said the port authority values the insights Holman and Owen have to offer and plans to continue conversations with them in one-on-one settings.

‘Engender greater trust’

Whatever the reason for their dismissals, both Holman and Owen agree that their removal may make dialogue more difficult between the west-side community impacted most by the port project and the authority.

And for some community members, the port authority’s action will serve as a punctuation mark on their long-held feeling that the authority doesn’t want to hear the community’s fears about the project.

“There’s just no getting around it that they are compromising the health, quality of life and safety of west-side residents without any compunction whatsoever to do what they said they would do,” Holman said, “and that’s to engage the community, get their input, listen to their concerns.”

Otto and Rogers said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that they haven’t had a chance to sit down with port authority leaders to discuss their concerns about the advisory council.

But moving forward, they hoped that the inland port authority would continue to facilitate a group of community members dedicated to mitigating impacts of the development on air quality and the environment — issues that have emerged as the major concerns among opponents of the project.

“The environmental group that Richard and Dorothy were part of, I think what they were looking at was figuring out policy direction toward impacts that they could see and help to negate those impacts,” Rogers noted. “So for me that was one of the key things to identify specifically from residents of the west side how we could look at those policy questions.”

Flygare said the environment and air quality subcommittee’s work is a “high priority” for port leaders and will continue with new membership. Replacements for Holman and Owen have already been identified: Kesa Vakapuna, who owns a construction business within the port’s jurisdictional area, and Laura Nelson, former energy adviser to Utah Govs. Jon Huntsman and Gary Herbert, now with FJ Management, parent company of Maverik, Flying J truck stops and Big West oil refinery.

Otto and Rogers said they also want to see port leaders incorporate as much involvement from west-side residents as possible, with the ultimate goal of mending fences between Salt Lake City residents and the authority.

“If done well and if done right, community involvement does engender greater trust between the public and a governmental entity,” Otto said. “So that’s definitely our hope is that the community advisory committees would be a way to bridge some of that mistrust and get some additional transparency around what the port authority is doing.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) James Rogers, Inland Port Authority board member and Salt Lake City Council member, is shown in this Sept. 26, 2018, file photo. He wants west side residents' issues about air quality and environment to be taken seriously by the Utah Inland Port leaders.