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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Christa Schmid hikes in Grizzly Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, June 27, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — There's some paperwork sitting on a desk in the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office waiting on possible approval for a new government entity called the Central Wasatch Commission.

The commission would pick up where the now inactive Mountain Accord left off, carrying out the objectives identified to protect and enhance the recreational, environmental, economic and transportation needs of the Wasatch Mountains' canyons in Salt Lake County.

But even before pen has been put to paper, there are a number of Mountain Accord critics opposed to the commission's formation — citing objections over a lack of accountability and transparency raised with the accord — and what role this new government animal will fulfill.

Mark Thomas, state elections director with the lieutenant governor's office, said staff has until close of business Thursday to decide whether to certify the commission's application of an interlocal agreement.

That agreement, which includes voting membership from Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Sandy and Cottonwood Heights, must meet the procedural requirements under state law.

But Thomas said there's been a complication added to the review because of an attorney's letter that raises concerns that the new commission will carry out the "decisions made behind closed doors," in the Mountain Accord process.

"Certification of the Central Wasatch Commission rewards illegal behavior, allowing Mountain Accord to sweep past violations under the rug," the letter from attorney William Fontenot states.

Fontenot represents the Cardiff Canyon Owners Association and property owner Norm Henderson in pending litigation involving Mountain Accord and alleged violations of state open meeting and government records laws.

The letter also points to an April audit request by two West Jordan Republican legislators who want a probe of the $8 million spent by Mountain Accord and if it adhered to proper bidding, oversight and accountability, especially given the $5.6 million that came from the state of Utah.

"We have a whole lot of money going into an accord that has not been very transparent or accountable for those funds," said Rep. Kim Coleman.

Both she and Rep. Ken Ivory say they worry the commission will take actions that trump local autonomy and usurp the state's role.

Land designations

Ivory pointed to the push by Mountain Accord for a federal land use designation in the canyons area that resulted in a bill being run by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. The legislation, among other things, would have established a new wilderness area.

Sandy City | Aaron Thorup, Sandy City

"What really got my attention was that federal land designation," said Ivory, who has been at the forefront of getting greater state control of federal lands in Utah. "The concern was this (Mountain Accord) is a nontransparent, extragovernmental body that is doing things that are going beyond any sense of jurisdiction without transparency. We certainly don't want some quasi-governmental body pushing land designations without going through the Legislature."

Because of Fontenot's letter, Thomas said he flagged the concerns for Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, asking for a response.

"I think this will add some context to what we do," Thomas said.

McAdams' spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, said the mayor is in talks with the three other mayors involved in the would-be commission, deciding how to respond.

"It is kind of rehashing old ground," she said. "Mountain Accord is completed and this is the next step."

Mountain Accord, publicly announced in January of 2014, was designed to build on previous study efforts involving the canyons, including Envision Utah's Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow report released in 2010.

Heyrend said McAdams stands by the work of Mountain Accord and is in "full support" of the new commission.

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan — who will be a voting member of the Central Wasatch Commission — said Mountain Accord did what no group had been able to do before by bringing unity to a diverse group of stakeholders when it comes to the future of the canyons.

"What we look for now is a formal body to assist the state and county and implement some of the principles we came up with in Mountain Accord," he said.

Not everyone trusts what those principles are, however, or believe that Mountain Accord accomplished anything of much substance.

"I don't think a lot has come out of it," said Summit County Councilman Roger Armstrong, who voted against a reallocation of $100,000 in county funds to the new commission from Mountain Accord.

When asked what the $100,000 would buy, Armstrong said, "I don't know."

Armstrong belonged to a transportation committee under Mountain Accord but over time, the metamorphosis of the new commission appears intent on reducing the voice of Summit County elected leaders, he added.

"Initially, Mountain Accord was a very, very broad group of stakeholders. … Right now, the discussion I have heard is we probably won't have a direct seat at the table. It will go to Park City," he said. "There's a concern about a real lack of a voice and that the broader stakeholder group has become a gang of four to work on this."

Dolan said the commission plans to have an organizing meeting in mid-July, and said the process will be transparent with opportunity for feedback.

But a member of his City Council, Maren Barker, voted no on the interlocal agreement and wasn't assuaged by any assurances that the would-be commission wouldn't be too powerful.

'Jurassic World'

"I think the biggest concern I had was the actual contract that creates the commission. It allows it to buy land, sell land and raise fees. There are a lot of things the commission can do that should not be taken away from the cities. The contract gave too much unchecked power in this one commission," Barker said.

She, like other critics, acknowledges the goals of watershed protection and better transportation for the canyons are noble.

"It is the details of the agreement that are scary," she said.

Barker, an attorney, said the commission will come with a 50-year life span, but as long as its members are working on something — even a small project — its existence will continue.

She likened the new commission to the movie "Jurassic World," in which scientists create a genetically modified hybrid dinosaur that escapes to wreak havoc.

"No one knows how it is going to behave or act," she said. "We as cities don't fully understand what was created in the document because it is so vague on powers. … We are creating a monster that can last 50 years, 100 years — or never go away."

Dolan said there is "no unchecked power," and the commission isn't going to take anybody's property rights away, as critics have warned.

He added, too, that the commission builds on the consensus reached by parties involved in Mountain Accord and because the accord lacked any authority, he said he's anxious to get on with the work involving the canyons.

That work, he said, is focused on a new federal land use designation for the Wasatch Canyons area and resurrecting the bill introduced by Chaffetz.

Coleman, however, said it is time to press pause until some questions are answered.

"Minimally, until there has been sufficient sunlight on this, there is no way we should let this thing grow. It is this county amoeba that should not grow anymore."