Commentary: Inland port controversy would benefit from mediation

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ethan PetersenÊwithÊCivil Riot, a SLC-basedÊcivilÊresistance collective, and other opponents of the proposed inland port are escorted out of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board meeting by Utah Highway Patrol officers at the Capitol, June 5, 2019. The Inland Port Authority Board had to cancel its meeting last month after a group of protesters took over the meeting. Petersen was arrested.

The conflict over the inland port is profound and intense. I believe the situation could greatly benefit from mediation. I’m not a professional mediator, but I’m nevertheless offering mediation-style advice to the two sides.

A standard practice for a mediator is to tell each side how weak and risky their respective positions are. The goal, of course, is to get both sides to move to the middle and reach a settlement.

First, my thinking-like-a-mediator assessment of each side’s position: The inland port supporters/Legislature: Your arrogant and aloof actions and attitude will ultimately undermine your political strength even among your current supporters. Even your rich supporters on the Sandy bench and in Draper are starting to come to the realization that the Salt Lake Valley’s air is killing them. Your “let them eat cake” attitude about the increased pollution from a bustling inland port makes you look like out-of-touch, oblivious plutocrats. In the past legislative session, the Legislature had never approved so much money for clean air measures. The fear of Salt Lake’s toxic air is, appropriately, setting in.

There’s hypocrisy in your position, too, because while you constantly rail against laws/edicts from Washington, D.C., that (you believe) override state’s rights as well as the state’s better judgment, now, in your alleged wisdom, you are running roughshod over the local government sovereignty of Salt Lake City.

Now, addressing the other side, this is my mediator’s assessment of the position of the inland port opponents/progressives: First and foremost, given the array of powerful forces (governor, Legislature and generously donating special interests) positioned against you, do you really think you can ultimately win? Litigation and other remedies may delay matters but, if I were betting, I’d put my money on the “establishment” to ultimately win.

Also, when the port’s supporters say the inland port’s geographic footprint will ultimately fill-in with generic urban sprawl even if the port is never built, they’re most likely correct. And that coming urban sprawl will create a lot of pollution, too.

What to do? Here’s the essence of the settlement I’m proposing: The Legislature must pass state-wide or Wasatch Front-wide clean air laws that make a material difference (and almost certainly cost a lot and upset certain people). Which specific laws? I will defer on that to the Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus. I feel confident that they will have some effective suggestions.

In exchange for passing the Clean Air Caucus’s list of initiatives, the port’s opponents would step aside and drop opposition to the inland port. That would truly be a win-win scenario.

I have no doubt that the true believers on each side of this dispute will be appalled that, by their reckoning, so much could be conceded and/or left on the table. The true believers seem to forget that in a democracy such as ours, with checks-and-balances, diffuse political power and frequently an evenly divided public opinion, compromise is the only thing that gets anything done that stays done.

In fact, generally speaking, given the realities of our democracy, I think that any proposal that simultaneously inflames the true believers on both sides of a controversy is always worthy of serious consideration.

It’s merely my speculative opinion, but I think a similar compromise took place with saga of moving the state prison from Draper to Salt Lake City. Whether it was an explicit agreement or simply a spontaneous, evolving understanding, the grand bargain that seemingly came to be understood by many was that the Legislature would pass effective, enlightened and progressive criminal justice reform in exchange for progressives dropping opposition to the prison relocation. That, too, was a strong win-win for everyone, particularly those caught in the criminal justice system and taxpayers.

Preventing the inland port doesn’t really help the person in West Valley City who’s already dying from our terrible air as it exists today. Valley-wide initiatives would help everyone. If we can get such improvements to our valley-wide air, allowing the port would be worth it.

Eric Rumple

Eric Rumple, Sandy, has an MBA from the University of Chicago and is the author of the novel “Forgive Our Debts.”

Return to Story