Deseret Morning News graphic

Hate paying $1 every 20 minutes for short-term parking at Salt Lake City International Airport? Rather battle crowds at curbside to pick up or drop off friends and relatives?

Don't like paying $19 a day to park in that short-term lot during trips? Settle for distant or off-airport satellite parking instead?

Not if you are a member of Congress (or some of their staff), or Salt Lake City Council members, or the mayor, or city department heads, or members of the airport board or a few other select individuals.

They have free parking privileges at the airport, including at its convenient (but expensive for others) short-term parking facility, according to a list obtained by the Deseret Morning News through a state open records law request.

The privilege extended to the privileged is good for both business or personal travel, although most (but not all) say they use it just for government trips. Any use of the privilege for personal travel is a perk that public officials should not have, says Anthony Musci, chairman of the watchdog group Common Cause of Utah.

"It's wrong, but it's not capital murder either. It does elevate public officials above the rest of the citizenry," Musci says. "On principle it is wrong, and I can't understand why any politician receives a perk like this for personal travel."

No one can remember exactly when that free parking perk began. "I've been here 17 years, and it has been here at least that long," says airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann.

"In the olden days, the list (of free-parking recipients) was longer. We used to have a dedicated lot for that, with more space," she said. But that early lot has since disappeared amid airport expansion, as have some of the sites chosen to replace it.

Peter Carr, press secretary to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, says, "The airport used to have an area for public officials right between the two terminals, but after Sept. 11, 2001, the airport did not want personal cars right up next to the terminals and instead provided parking passes" to its other lots, gratis.

Gann said the decision to allow free parking (and to whom) is made by airport administrators, not the airport board or City Council. She said the current list of types of officials with that perk has not changed much in years.

At the top of the list is Utah's congressional delegation, who fly to Washington almost every week. Each of the five members said it was offered to them without requesting it. And they say they use it only when on official business, or at least none recalled using it for personal travel.

Scott Parker, chief of staff to Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, says his boss even goes the extra mile "and parks on the upper levels" so he will not tie up more convenient locations for days while he is in Washington.

Hatch is the only delegation member who also has free parking for two staff members (including one who recently left the staff.) Carr said they likely were given the privilege because they sometimes drive the senator to or from the airport.

All the members of the delegation say they appreciate the parking privilege. "It's a matter of convenience, but we would be happy to pay for it as well. It would just come out of our regular budget," Parker said.

Mary Jane Collipriest, press secretary to Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said, however, that Bennett believes the free parking pass "is a better alternative than billing the taxpayer to reimburse him for his parking or having staff members drive him to and from the airport."

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said the privilege is akin to "that of allowing congressional district staff to locate in a county courthouse or other government building that is taxpayer-funded," so he sees no problem with it for official use.

Mayor Rocky Anderson in the past created controversy as he acknowledged that he has used the privilege for personal travel. He declined comment for this story, including any comment about whether he continues to use it for personal travel.

But a story earlier this year disclosed that on May 6-13, Anderson, who has banned Salt Lake City employees from accepting any gifts as public employees, parked his car in short-term parking next to the terminal while he took a personal trip to New York City to watch his son graduate from college.

That would have generated a $152 parking bill for someone not on the free parking list.

Some City Council members acknowledge using the free parking on occasion for personal travel, too.

Carlton Christensen, who is on the City Council and airport board, said he has used it on rare occasions when his whole family traveled together. He said because he lives close to the airport, he usually has family members drop him off there when he travels.

City Council member Jill Remington Love said she has used it maybe twice for personal trips.

City Council member Dave Buhler said he has used it for personal trips, but the city may still have received a benefit. He said when he returned from a recent one-day trip to St. George, he "needed to hurry back to City Hall in time for a council meeting" and was aided by the close-in free parking he used.

He adds that the airport parking privilege may not be much different than the free parking council members receive at City Hall.

Others with free parking include members of the airport board, who hold meetings at the airport, major city department heads and Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard. The latter is the only one on the list who is neither a city official nor a member (or staff) of the congressional delegation.

Kennard says he never requested the privilege. Sheriffs before him also apparently had it, he said. "I only use it when I drive my county car out there" on official business, he said.

Of note, public officials are not the only ones who may receive free parking at the airport. Gann notes it is available also to news media reporters. Those who are there to cover stories may have their parking validated free by showing credentials, she said.

Also, senior City Attorney Jodi L. Howick said city employees who work at the airport are given free parking, and a number of free parking spaces are allocated to tenants in terminals, based on the amount of space they rent.

Also, some federal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, require airports to provide a number of free parking spaces to support their activities at the airport, Howick said.