SALT LAKE CITY — Months ago, canyon property owners and political opponents of Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams accused the Mountain Accord of conflicts of interest, questionable spending and a lack of transparency.
But State Auditor John Dougall on Tuesday released the findings of his review into the now defunct group of canyon stakeholders — which has since morphed into a new government entity, the Central Wasatch Planning Commission — reporting no spending misconduct or conflicts of interest.
The matter of the group's transparency, however, remains in limbo, with a lawsuit still pending in 3rd District Court.
McAdams' and other Mountain Accord leaders have previously argued that the group wasn't subject to state open meetings laws because it wasn't an official governmental entity, but rather a group of stakeholders working toward a common goal of preserving the Wasatch Front canyons while allowing recreational access to the state's most popular ski and hiking areas.
But a judge ruled in July that the Mountain Accord was subject to Utah's open meeting laws, following a lawsuit from Cardiff Canyon Owners Association and property owner Norm Henderson, accusing the group of wrongfully excluding people from its executive committee meetings, failing to publicize the meetings and taking action without proper procedure.
Following that ruling, several Salt Lake County Council members sent a letter to the state auditor calling for an investigation of the organization's finances. Two state legislators, Rep. Kim Coleman and Rep. Ken Ivory, also sent a similar letter in April.
In a letter dated Thursday, Dougall left questions about Mountain Accord's transparency and its compliance with open meeting laws to the pending lawsuit.
"It is anticipated that the court will decide the merits of the case and make a ruling in the upcoming months," Dougall wrote.
The auditor did, however, report his findings on questions about how the Mountain Accord's roughly $8 million budget has been spent since February 2014, after the Utah Legislature appropriated funds for the group.
Canyon property owners and McAdams' GOP challenger in last year's election have raised concerns about how taxpayer funds have been spent — with most of its budget going to contractors, service consultants and transportation studies.
During his campaign last year, Dave Robinson accused McAdams, who was chairman of Mountain Accord's executive committee, of awarding expensive contracts to the public affairs firm Exoro Group, from which several consultants have also given multiple financial and in-kind contributions to McAdams' campaign. McAdams dismissed the accusations as "unfounded and absurd" since he had no role in the procurement process.
The auditor confirmed that the contractors were selected in an open, competitive bid process, as McAdams and his office had said.
"Given that there was an open process for procurement and that no one agency held a majority of the selection committee's representation, it appears the risk of conflict of interest issues was minimized," Dougall wrote.
Dougall also said his office reviewed invoices and determined "there was nothing to indicate the level of compensation paid to the consultants was not reasonable and customary." Consultants were paid about $6.7 million, or 90 percent of the group's expenditures.
After reviewing the auditor's findings Tuesday, McAdams issued a statement saying he was "proud" of the Mountain Accord's work to collaboratively "balance all the competing uses in the Central Wasatch and the foundation that we have laid to pursue good public policy and protect and conserve this beautiful area for future generations."
"I am pleased that Auditor Dougall found that Mountain Accord followed proper contracting procedures and satisfactorily monitored progress on objectives established under the contract," he said.
But Robinson said the auditor's findings do not "exonerate" McAdams and the Mountain Accord because the auditor only "looked at the process" and not "the specifics that went on under the process." He said Exoro Group still has financial ties to McAdams and received "large amounts of taxpayer money, regardless of process."
Alyson Heyrend, McAdams spokeswoman, said those allegations are "totally unfounded" and the auditor "clearly debunked" them.
However, County Councilman Richard Snelgrove — one of the council members who requested the audit — said Tuesday there are still "unanswered questions."
"Based off of the auditor's findings, we can be a bit more comfortable that financial procedures were followed with respect to procurement procedures and how money was spent, but we're still left with the unanswered questions of 'What is there to show for it?'" Snelgrove said.
Aside from completing a transportation study, Snelgrove said "there appears to be little to show" for the $8 million.
"These decisions can affect millions of lives every year, while millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent," Snelgrove said.
In response to the question of whether the Mountain Accord's study accomplished the goals set by the Legislature and other policymakers, Dougall points out the legislative intent for the funds states the money be used simply to "support the Mountain Accord."
"Given the extremely limited intent language of the Legislature, it appears the appropriated funds were used in accordance with the Legislature's intent," Dougall wrote.
Ivory said if the state auditor found the legislative intent language too vague, it is something lawmakers should address.
"If we did not give him enough guardrails to work on with as far as what is appropriate and not appropriate, that is something that needs to be fixed going forward," Ivory said.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue
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