In Weber County, officials say a commissioner’s financial disclosure was appropriate. Others disagree.

Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer’s partial ownership of land set to be developed has raised eyebrows in the Ogden Valley.

Eden • When Jim O’Brien retired to an Ogden Valley home in 2016, he expected to enjoy the quiet serenity of the mountains. After 35 years as an attorney at a large law firm in bustling Chicago, he and his wife, Kay, moved to their Eden home to enjoy the area’s natural beauty.

He didn’t expect to become involved in local politics. When some friends told him their concerns about a development near the Nordic Valley ski resort, O’Brien, a former litigator and Harvard Law graduate, said, “unfortunately, I’m a tax lawyer, not a real estate lawyer.”

But when friends voiced their concerns with the speed of development in the valley, he said he would start listening to meetings and read up on what he could. Since then, he’s been calling for more accountability within Weber County government.

O’Brien believes Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer, a prominent real estate broker and former state lawmaker, has violated county ethics guidelines in regard to a piece of land Froerer partially owned while the commission discussed whether or not to approve a rezoning for that land.

The Weber County Attorney’s Office says Froerer followed state law, which they say wouldn’t require a commissioner to disclose a detailed list of their business interests until they came before the county.

The land in question is the site of potential development just east of the base of the Nordic Valley Ski Resort. If it gets developed, the land in question will go from an empty field that used to be a golf course to a form-based village — a curated, mixed-use commercial space with over 500 housing units — meaning its value will likely soar in the coming years.

Froerer recused himself in an August vote to change a section of the county’s land use code for the village, saying he had a small interest in the land. Though at that time, Froerer had not filed a detailed disclosure statement of his business interests, and he wouldn’t file one until November.

He also recused himself from votes in December regarding whether the county should approve the rezoning to allow the village and whether to move forward with a development agreement for the ski village plans.

All three votes were approved by the commission, moving the development forward without Froerer’s votes.

Despite these recusals, O’Brien says Froerer violated county ethics guidelines by participating in the discussions surrounding the village’s development. O’Brien says Froerer was in discussions regarding the project since at least 2021.

When contacted, Froerer referred questions about his disclosures to the Weber County Attorney’s Office. He told The Tribune in an email, “Due to pending or potential litigation against the parties involved with [the] issue my [attorney] has advised me to refer all requests for information to the [Weber County Attorney’s Office].”

Froerer did not respond to an email with a follow-up question.

Nordic Valley Land Associates

At the center of Froerer’s disclosure controversy is his stake in a company called Nordic Valley Land Associates, LLC, or NVLA.

NVLA is included in Froerer’s 2018 conflict of interest disclosure when he served in the Utah House as a representative. But that document doesn’t list what NVLA owns or how much of the business he owns, only that NVLA is a real estate holdings business and Froerer is a partner.

Froerer spent over 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives before he was elected as a Weber County commissioner in 2018, starting his term in 2019.

In the next disclosure he filed, in November of last year, Froerer lists NVLA in his county disclosure, saying he had a “16% interest in Nordic Valley Land surrounding existing Ski Resort,” according to a copy of the disclosure obtained by The Tribune.

During the December meeting when Froerer recused himself from voting, he said a family trust had that 16% interest in NVLA, and he was one of five people in the trust.

Just three months after recusing himself from votes, Froerer filed a handwritten note in March updating his own disclosure, saying he no longer has a stake in the property as of February. County property records show those parcels of land are now owned by a different company. It’s not clear how he disposed of his interest in the land.

After submitting several letters to the editor to the Ogden Valley News — a community newspaper based in Eden — to raise this issue to the public, O’Brien ultimately filed complaints with the Weber County Attorney’s Office and the Utah Office of the State Auditor.

In his complaint to the state auditor, which he supplied to The Tribune, O’Brien says Froerer “spoke at length in favor” of a zoning amendment regarding the Nordic Valley village project during commission meetings in July and August. The amendment changed a section of the county’s land use code.

A review of the July meeting minutes shows Froerer voted to delay the vote on the amendment until there was more public input. The amendment was later voted on in August, a vote that Froerer recused himself from. During the meeting, he said he had a small interest in the land in a trust, according to county minutes.

O’Brien argued in the complaint that Froerer’s recusal was insufficient, saying Froerer had participated in the commission’s discussions about the land in previous months. He also alleged that judging from past, public commission meetings, “Froerer participated in the commission’s private deliberations regarding the (Nordic Valley village development), although the full extent of his participation is not established by the public record.”

O’Brien also says Froerer’s written disclosure has shortcomings.

“It kind of did it in a way and sidestepped the real issue, which was the golf course properties will become the south village and a major center for development in the project to build out the Nordic Valley mountain community,” O’Brien said.

Weber County’s response

Christopher Crockett, the chief civil deputy for Weber County Attorney’s Office, told The Tribune in an email the state auditor’s office had received a complaint about Froerer’s business conflicts on Oct. 24. The auditor assigned to the case, “recommended that immediate steps be taken to come into compliance with the statute if disclosures had not been made,” Crockett wrote in the email to The Tribune.

“Prior to that correspondence, however, my office had become aware of the citizen-filed complaint and met with Commissioner Froerer to provide legal advice and address the concerns,” Crockett wrote in the email. “Commissioner Froerer filed an updated disclosure in November 2022.”

In a phone interview, Crockett said the county believes Froerer’s updated disclosures are sufficient under state law. State law — specifically Utah Code 17-16a — doesn’t require public officials to disclose investments until it poses “a potential or actual conflict.”

“The statute doesn’t require you to think of every potential conflict out there, or disclose every investment you have out there, because it might not be required under this statute to disclose,” Crockett said. “But once a matter is presented before the deciding body, that’s when the obligation is triggered.”

In other words, county officials like Froerer are largely required to operate on the honor system, and they must disclose a potential conflict once it arises. Crockett added that state law also doesn’t require someone to recuse themselves, as Froerer did. The law only focuses on disclosure, he said.

County ethics

Dane Thorley, an associate professor of law at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, specializes in recusals, disclosures and conflicts of interests.

He said there’s plenty of moving parts when it comes to conflicts of interest in state law. For one, the state law says if an officer holds more than 10% interest in a business or entity that’s subject to regulation of the county, it would require disclosure.

Froerer has said a family trust owns the 16% interest in NVLA, and he only owns one-fifth of the trust. That partial ownership likely wouldn’t be enough for that rule to kick in. However, Thorley said there could be an argument made that the perception of Froerer profiting off the land could be enough to create a perceived conflict of interest.

“He eventually disclosed, he did recuse, so good on him for that,” Thorley told The Tribune. “But it’s squishy, whether or not there was a legal requirement (to disclose) here isn’t super clear to me.”

Legalities aside, Thorley said these types of situations which can be perceived as self-dealing damage the public’s trust. There will always be people who agree or disagree with a policy change, but having people believe a policy was made improperly because of their own potential gain is a big problem.

“In addition to things actually needing to be fair, there needs to be a perception that they are fair,” he said. “There’s so much distrust and so much polarization when it comes to politics right now, that we really need our government officials to be extra transparent.”

Closed investigations

After all the open letters, public meetings and complaints to state and county entities, it seems potential investigations into Froerer’s potential misgivings have stopped.

In an email, Crockett said the state auditor’s office informed the county, “there is no active investigation and the matter is now considered closed.”

“Likewise, the County has complied with the (state auditor’s) recommendations and also considers the matter closed,” Crockett wrote in an email.

Despite the roadblocks, O’Brien doesn’t plan on going back to sitting on the sidelines anytime soon. He told The Tribune he hopes the state auditor’s office or another investigative body will continue to look into Froerer’s business dealings, which he still believes are not aboveboard.

“I’m amazed that an audit of a commissioner’s activities, disclosures and non-disclosures — and the months and years they didn’t disclose things, and what he did disclose was kind of flawed and cryptic — that he’s not subject to a real thorough audit,” O’Brien said.

He believes Froerer should be audited for potential misgivings, and he’s surprised the state and county don’t agree.

“The whole concept of recusal is as a safeguard to protect public trust and encourage public trust in government,” O’Brien said, adding recusal should also be used to make sure officials are “not engaging in self-dealing.”

With the rezoning of the potential village near Nordic Valley approved, the development’s next step would be to install utility lines and subdivide the parcels. As of Tuesday, there wasn’t an available timeline in place for when either could happen.

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