Tribune editorial: Secrecy only harms potential of Port Authority

This Pat Bagley cartoon appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, July 20, 2018.

The brand, spanking new Utah Inland Port Authority has the potential to do great things. But, first, it needs to be spanked, or its brand will lose a lot of its luster.

Sadly, members of the authority board have begun their tenure by making wan excuses about how the committees they have formed are not absolutely required by law to meet in public, so they won’t.

Even if that legal interpretation is accurate — and that’s iffy at best — this level of secrecy so early in the authority’s life is a really bad way to launch a project that is already suspect in the minds of many.

The authority was rushed into existence in the last hours of the last session of the Utah Legislature, taking a form that even the bill’s original sponsor didn’t care for. The process basically ignored the concerns and objections of Salt Lake City officials, who had reason to believe that zoning, development and tax policy over the northwest quadrant of the city belonged to them.

A subsequent amendment to the law took some of the roughest edges off that incursion in to local affairs. But there is still reason to worry that the sudden action by state officials to push aside local authorities is a desire to also push aside the kind of land-use and environmental standard the more liberal city government would likely impose on the envisioned massive shipping and manufacturing hub.

Setting up committees of the authority and allowing them to meet in secret to consider questions that will affect the economic and environmental future of the Salt Lake Valley for generations to come is, in an atmosphere that already has too little public trust, a stupefyingly bad idea.

This action seems particularly odd given the fact that the Legislature recently went out of its way to blow up the old structure of the Utah Transit Authority. It did so on the valid grounds that that agency’s ability to do its very important work was severely handicapped by its reputation as out-of-touch, self-dealing and secretive. UTA’s death spiral — no service improvements without more money, no more money without service improvements — spun all the faster as even people who totally support the idea of a multi-county transit agency weren’t comfortable with the way that multi-county transit agency was run.

Meanwhile, the other huge land-use effort in Utah, the Central Wasatch Commission, will continue to be hobbled in its efforts to make permanent and sustainable policy in and around the ski resorts of Big and Little Cottonwood canyons by the reputation for unreasonable secrecy that attended its precursor agency, Mountain Accord.

The day will come when the Inland Port Authority Board, or its committees, will have valid, and narrow, legal reasons for some level of confidentiality. Negotiating lands sales and other kinds of contracts, for example.

But acting in secret should be the exception, for the Port Authority and every other public body, never the rule.