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James Wooldridge, KSL, File

Utah Inland Port meeting shut down as protesters again disrupt gathering

By Art Raymond and Katie McKellar, KSL | Updated - Aug 14th, 2019 @ 7:12pm | Posted - Aug 14th, 2019 @ 1:12pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Organizers of a Wednesday “working group” meeting of the Utah Inland Port made an 11th hour venue change in an effort to thwart protesters who have targeted previous meetings.

Apparently, it was to no avail.

After two protesters got into a verbal exchange with Stuart Clason, the regional economic development director of the Utah Association of Counties, at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting — interrupting him before he could explain rules of decorum — Clason shut down the meeting at the Pioneer police precinct in Salt Lake City.

“Officers, we’re shutting it down. We’re done,” Clason said as a line of officers began ushering the two protesters — Ethan Petersen and Maura Sanchez of the group Civil Riot — and others out of a conference room.

One protester, Ken Kohler, 72, of Salt Lake City, with the group Elders Rising — a group described as elders working together on climate justice — was arrested and cited for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, said Salt Lake Police Sgt. Brandon Shearer. He was then released.

While in the conference room, Shearer said Kohler “put his hands on a gentlemen” despite being asked not to, so officers asked him to leave. “(Kohler) then grabbed the phones that belonged to the other gentlemen and tried to take them, at which point he was asked to leave,” Shearer said. “The officers grabbed his arm and attempted to escort him out and he resisted arrest.”

After police released him, Kohler told reporters he had only patted someone on the back to get their attention and then was confused about whether a phone on the table was his and mistakenly picked it up.

It’s the latest chaotic episode in the controversy over the Utah Inland Port Authority — a proposed project to bring a massive global trade hub to about 16,000 acres in west Salt Lake City.

Though Wednesday’s incident involved only about a dozen or so protesters — far fewer than those who stormed the Salt Lake Chamber building last month in what Gov. Gar Herbert decried as “borderline terrorism” — it still stirred confusion and chaos in port authority officials’ now multiple failed attempts to hold public discussions over the proposed port.

Protesters from various groups have disrupted two previous meetings of the Utah Inland Port Authority board. Last month, actions boiled over into violence and clashes with police when protesters stormed the private Salt Lake Chamber Building, leading to eight arrests and minor injuries of both police and protesters.

Unlike the previous meetings that have drawn protests, Wednesday’s gathering was to include stakeholders and consultants and not the full port board. While public organizations like the inland port authority board are subject to noticing requirements and other rules under the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act, the Wednesday meeting was billed as a working group gathering between stakeholders without a full quorum of the port authority board, so it wasn’t bound to open meeting laws.

Earlier in the day, Clason told KSL that he decided on Tuesday to move the meeting from the Utah Association of Counties’ offices in Murray after catching wind over social media that protesters might attend, saying his employees and other stakeholders “don’t feel safe” after last month’s protest at the Salt Lake Chamber Building in downtown Salt Lake City.

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Clason said he changed it because he didn’t “feel like having people urinate on the walls” of his office building.

”I didn’t feel comfortable having anything to do with individuals that caused large amounts of damage on private property,” he said.

“Our staff feels unsafe,” Clason said. “They’re acting like terrorists. ... If individuals want to sit down and have a conversation, I’m more than amenable, I’m more than happy to offer our space ... (But) it’s a matter of safety.”

Clason is a former Utah Inland Port Authority board member appointed by former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (when he worked for McAdams as a regional economic development director.) He moved the meeting to the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Pioneer precinct office at 1040 W. 700 South.

The decision to move the meeting to a police precinct didn’t sit well with protesters, who asserted the move was another act of aggression to intimidate and discourage those opposed to the project from going to the meeting.

“When you view the public as a threat you need armed cops to rebuke, you may not be on the right side of history? Maybe?” the protest group Civil Riot posted on Facebook before the meeting.

Petersen — who has been arrested twice before related to inland port protests — and Sanchez began questioning why police were asking people to leave the conference room, saying the room had reached maximum capacity for fire code regulations. When one meeting attendee asked why it wasn’t being treated as a “public meeting,” Clason attempted to explain why it was being held at a police precinct.

“Our intent today was to have a discussion about areas off the Wasatch Front that are interested in working with the inland port authority, and we were hosting at our (Utah Association of Counties) office because we were inviting commissioners who were members of our organization to have a conversation,” Clason said. “We did not realize the meeting had been posted, and we found out yesterday that it had, and we were informed protests were going to be happening.

“After what we saw what protesters did to the Salt Lake Chamber, our staff felt unsafe and was very concerned that similar things would happen at our office,” Clason said.

“Oh please, come on,” one man said, as Sanchez interrupted Clason.

“So are you saying the public is not welcome to come and ask questions right now?” Sanchez said.

Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne then told Sanchez, “Interruption is not conducive to a good dialogue, so please let him finish. Just let him finish.”

That’s when Clason gave up, telling officers to “shut it down. We’re done.”

Confusion broke out as police began ushering people out.

“So much for transparency and accountability,” quipped Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and leader of the group Stop the Polluting Port.

She said holding the meeting at a police precinct is “very intimidating.”

“I think what they’re doing here is using this public concern as a reason now to hide from the public,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they go off and meet somewhere else without us.”

The Utah Inland Port project planned in northwest Salt Lake City is aiming to maximize Utah’s place in the global import and export economy with a network of trucks, trains and air connections, according to state lawmakers. Protesters successfully shut down the board’s first meeting and another in June resulted in clashes with police and one arrest.

Wednesday’s working group was supposed to be focused on “satellite port development” — the concept that the port, under legislation passed earlier this year, can branch out to other willing communities to partner with the port such as Carbon County exporting coal or hay. This meeting was supposed to be with county commissioners and others interested in partnering with satellite ports.

Hedge said that establishing satellite ports could help alleviate some of the concentration of activities at the Salt Lake port, including some of the issues on protesters’ list of concerns.

“(Satellite ports) will decentralize things and de-conflict things and I think it could have a major impact on road congestion and things like that,” Hedge said. “If we can find good locations to do this around the state, it will be an economic boost in those parts of the state ... and we can deconflict and bring down the level of impact in (the Salt Lake) area.”

While Wednesday’s meeting failed to get off the ground, both Clason and Milne noted other working group gatherings, about a dozen of which have already been held, included productive conversations about various issues related to the inland port plans.

The Utah Inland Port project planned in northwest Salt Lake City is aiming to maximize Utah’s place in the global import and export economy with a network of trucks, trains and air connections, according to state lawmakers. Protesters successfully shut down the board’s first meeting and another in June resulted in clashes with police and one arrest.

Contributing: Ladd Egan

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