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SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the new Utah Inland Port Authority Board voted Wednesday to keep subcommittee meetings closed to the public despite concerns raised about transparency.
"I think we're taking it a step too far," Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, said during a discussion about treating the subcommittees the same as the board, closing them only for the topics allowed under the state's Open and Public Meetings Act, such as real estate transactions, personnel matters and contract negotiations.
"There will be times and issues that we'll need to have more privacy that may not follow exactly under these guidelines," Buxton said.
Assistant Attorney General Christopher Pieper told the board that subcommittees "don't rise to the level of a meeting" under the law because a quorum of the 11-member board is not present.
"We're all going to be committed to the open process. That's what the state law says and that's what we're following," House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said before the vote on his substitute motion to follow the letter of the law and keep the subcommittee meetings closed.
Only Derek Miller, the chairman of the authority board and the Salt Lake Chamber's president and CEO, and Lara Fritts, a board member and Salt Lake City's economic development director, voted against the motion.
Miller said he hoped the board "would continue to explore options." He said the discussion about the subcommittees was "a good representation of having an open and public process in how decisions are made."
The board created by the 2018 Legislature to oversee development of an inland port with some 22,000 acres of land, mostly located in Salt Lake City's undeveloped northwest quadrant, didn't take public comment until the end of the meeting.
"I'm sad. I can't believe you didn't do it," said Deeda Seed, a campaigner with an environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, and an outspoken opponent of the inland port project.
She said it sounded like the decision was made for expediency and asked, "what is the rush? If you're going to be spending something like $1.6 billion … shouldn't the public be aware of what those plans are?"
Seed presented the board with a copy of a letter urging subcommittees and all meetings of the board to be open to the public. It was signed by more than 160 groups and individuals, including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
"Opening all meetings to the public will go a long way in helping to restore and maintain public trust as the Utah Inland Port Authority Board moves forward," the letter states, noting nothing in the law prohibits such an action.
The letter also cites a recent Deseret News editorial that said, "The only way to counter distrust is to operate with complete transparency and openness, even if that means going beyond what is required. Closed doors breed suspicion."
The board got off to a rocky start in June, when what was supposed to be the first meeting couldn't convene because members hadn't yet been impaneled amid questions about conflict-of-interest issues.
Subcommittee meetings held behind closed doors in preparation for Wednesday's meeting added to the frustration that some in the community feel towards the inland port, expected to be the largest economic development project in the state's history.
Members of the subcommittees reported to the board about the search for an executive director, putting together a budget and looking at how the port will be funded.
Miller raised the question of whether to set a different standard for subcommittee meetings than what was adopted during the board's first meeting in July, going "above and beyond" what is required under the law.
Buxton and others said they were worried that would set a precedent not just for the authority, but for other entities.
However, two years ago, the Utah Transit Authority closed its subcommittee meetings to the public. Then, under pressure from state and local government leaders, UTA reversed the decision.
Wednesday's decision by the inland port authority board was quickly condemned by the Alliance for a Better Utah, which called for lawmakers to re-examine the state's open meeting law to keep other entities from following suit.
"Essentially, the public is left to see only the process of using a rubber stamp to validate any work done by the subcommittees," the left-leaning group's executive director, Chase Thomas said.