This article originally appeared in the Deseret News. Read the article in its entirety here.
SALT LAKE CITY — After controversy over the Utah Inland Port Board subcommittees meeting behind closed doors, board leaders have indicated they have heard the concerns and may consider opening the meetings.
Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority board and president of the Salt Lake Chamber, told the Salt Lake City Council this week after advocacy groups and residents raised questions about transparency that he plans to have a discussion about the issue during the authority’s meeting next week.
“I think that’s a fair question. I think that’s a good question,” Miller said. “I think that’s a question the board needs to discuss, and it’s my intention to raise that question at our next board meeting and have in a public setting an opportunity to hear from the public whether or not we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
The Utah Inland Port Authority — the new government body that the Utah Legislature created despite protests from Salt Lake City to control the development of a global trade hub in the city’s undeveloped northwest quadrant — chose with a vote during its first meeting last month to adhere to the Utah Public and Open Meetings Act.
But while the port authority’s full board meetings are required to be open under the state law, three subcommittees the board created do not because they are made up of only up to five board members, which does not constitute a quorum, according to the port authority’s legal counsel.
That’s why the three subcommittees — one tasked to begin a search for the port authority’s executive director, one to work on the authority’s budget and business plan, and one to focus on how to use the tax differential that will be used for project incentives as the port’s area is developed — met behind closed doors last week, Miller said.
Now, the question is whether the board should “hold itself to a higher standard,” Miller said, when it comes to its subcommittees and “should it not just do the minimum required by the law?”
Wharton noted his constituents have raised concerns of transparency, only second to concerns about the possible impact an inland port might have to the area’s environment.
Wharton also urged the port authority board to at the “very least” post notices of the subcommittees, even if they’re closed, so the public can know when and where the subcommittees are meeting and who to contact if they have questions.
“If subcommittees are completely able to operate in the dark, I think a concern from residents is that significant discussions will be made in the subcommittees, and then the board will just sort of approve it,” Wharton said.
Miller’s assurances that the board will potentially discuss opening the subcommittees come after he told the Deseret News last week it was “important to follow the law” and not “create our own exceptions” to the Utah Public and Open Meetings Act, decisions he worried could be “arbitrary.”
The comments created backlash among residents and advocacy groups, who called for more transparency from a new governing board that was born out of backroom negotiations and a never-before-seen version of a bill that passed the Utah Legislature within minutes of it surfacing on the House floor.
“From the very beginning, the inland port situation has felt underhanded,” Katie Matheson, spokeswoman for Alliance for a Better Utah, said in an interview Thursday.
“This is likely the biggest project that we’re going to see here in Utah … and to do it without the trust of the public is problematic at best,” she continued, adding that even if the subcommittees are allowed under state law to be closed, open doors should be the “default.”
“They need to regain the trust of the public, and that starts by keeping maximum levels of transparency in all their meetings,” she said.