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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Nathan Chaszeyka and Melinda Chaszeyka hike in Grizzly Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, June 27, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — A new governmental entity is getting into the fray of the public policy debate over the future of Wasatch canyons development, recreation and transportation.

On Thursday, the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office gave the go-ahead for the birth of an interlocal agreement to form the Central Wasatch Commission.

The decision comes despite concerns that the commission, which grew out of the now-defunct Mountain Accord, will engage in an alleged similar pattern of what critics said was lack of accountability and transparency.

State Elections Director Mark Thomas said the certification was approved because those accusations — in addition to pending litigation against Mountain Accord — fall outside the scope of the office's statutory purview.

That purview, he added, is limited to determining whether the application meets the requirements of the law.

An attorney representing clients in the pending Mountain Accord litigation asked the lieutenant governor's office to hold off on the certification given the lingering questions on the accord's practices and the cloud over the commission.

William Fontenot said the certification decision was not surprising given the narrow scope of the law.

"It should be modified so the (office) has more substantive oversight of these entities," the attorney said.

Two lawmakers, too, asked Utah State Auditor John Dougall in April to conduct an audit of the $8 million spent by the accord since its inception in 2013, noting that $5.6 million came from state coffers.

The Central Wasatch Commission grew out of a platform put forth by the accord's top leaders to form an entity that had the governmental teeth to accomplish goals identified for the canyons, such as federal land designations that include land swaps with ski resorts.

Membership on the commission includes mayors from Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Sandy, Cottonwood Heights and potentially representation from Park City or the Utah Department of Transportation.

Critics of the commission's formation come by their opposition for a variety of reasons, ranging from the assertion it is an unnecessary layer of government that may have too much unchecked power or that its goal is a federal land designation that contradicts Utah's political objectives.

Three members of the Sandy City Council voted against forming the interlocal agreement, and a Salt Lake County Council member also opposed creating the Central Wasatch Commission.

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Some Summit County leaders and others have publicly questioned what the Mountain Accord accomplished during its tenure and the Salt Lake County-centric nature of the new commission.

Dougall's office has not acted on the audit request — only to say it has been received — but is expected to conduct an audit when the litigation is resolved.

The litigation involves questions of whether Mountain Accord is subject to state laws regarding records access or open meetings and therefore is an entity that can be sued for violations.