The Utah State Legislature has a nasty habit of making important policy decisions behind closed doors and excluding the public from its deliberations. Prison relocation seems to be yet another example of this practice. The current controversy over the prison is the result of that dismiss-the-public approach.
What the Legislature should have done is involve the public before it voted on whether to relocate the prison, not after. It should have held town meetings and engaged in debate through media forums in order to solicit input from Utah citizens on whether to move the prison and not just where to move it. Again, all of this should have occurred prior to the legislative vote, not after.
These sessions should have included two basic questions: Should the prison be relocated and, if so, where should it go? In the course of those public deliberations, the legislators would have heard citizens discuss the various effects of prison relocation — prison updating needs, economic development, correction officer employment and community safety.
That did not happen. Now, many in the public suspect that the decision about relocation is based primarily on economic development rather than prison updating. They see developers anxious to get the prison out of the way so they can make lots of money adding new commercial development to Draper.
Many people are angry that public input opportunities have been severely limited and their views don’t seem to matter to Utah legislators deciding this issue. Indeed, the public reaction of the Prison Relocation Commission only exacerbates the problem. Members of the commission have answered public demands not to close the option of keeping the prison in Draper with the pronouncement that the decision about whether to relocate has already been made.
In other words, it is too late for the public to weigh in on the issue of whether the prison should be removed. In reality, the fact that the public never really had the opportunity to weigh in before the Legislature voted is never mentioned. Instead, the message the public is getting is we should keep our noses out of a decision that insiders already have made.
Of course, the decision has not already been made. The Legislature still retains the power to keep the prison where it is or to move it. Sensing the public mood, Gov. Gary Herbert reminded the Legislature of that fact when he said recently that the Legislature should consider keeping the prison in Draper.
What should be done at this point? The Legislature should start over with the process of soliciting public input. It should hold a set of hearings along the Wasatch Front explaining the costs of the various options (including rebuilding on the current site in Draper) as well as the effects of these options on the elements discussed above. Then, legislators should sincerely listen to the public’s response to that information, as well as suggestions on how to best proceed. Only then should the Legislature move to a vote on prison relocation, including whether to relocate at all.
Some legislators will protest that they have already done that with the public sessions held in Eagle Mountain, Grantsville and Salt Lake City. But those sessions foreclosed the option of keeping the prison in place and limited public input on the entire issue of what to do with the prison. And none of these sessions was actually held in Draper.
Yet, as much as I would appreciate such an effort by our Legislature, I am not expecting such a move. It would be a more transparent and democratic process than a majority of legislators are accustomed to. Instead, they will do as they usually do — make closed-door decisions, take public heat from public interest groups and the press knowing that these forces typically are powerless to stop them, and then run for re-election and win the vote of the very constituents they just ignored or dismissed. Only when that cycle is broken with the electoral defeat of those legislators who dismiss the public’s views (except close to election time) will voters begin to be included in these kinds of important policy decisions.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.