Just because something is allowed doesn’t mean it is advisable.
The three subcommittees of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board may legally meet behind closed doors under the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act. Each subcommittee consists of four or five members of the 11-member Port Authority board, which doesn’t constitute a quorum. Therefore, it doesn’t trigger the law’s requirement that the meetings and minutes be open to the public.
But the subcommittees are not required to meet privately. The difference is important, especially considering the history of the inland port.
The Port Authority has been under intense scrutiny since its creation earlier this year. Salt Lake City’s leaders worry it may seek to usurp the city’s ability to zone within its own borders. The authority’s own conflict-of-interest rules, and the light cast by reporting from this newspaper, have caused two original members to resign because they have property interests nearby.
Some members of the public are skeptical as to how the authority will handle sensitive issues. The chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council told the Deseret News that west-side residents and other community members have a high level of distrust in the authority because of the way state lawmakers established it, mostly behind closed doors.
A lot of money is at stake. The Port Authority will set up a customs and distribution center to potentially handle billions of dollars in goods.
The only way to counter distrust is to operate with complete transparency and openness, even if that means going beyond what is required. Closed doors breed suspicion.
We understand the arguments for secrecy. The subcommittees have no real authority to enact anything. Their decisions eventually must be presented to the full authority board for final action in public meetings. Similar arguments come up whenever any subdivision of an open board wants to meet in secret.
They are weak arguments. Typically, the real negotiating occurs in the subcommittee meetings, away from public glare. That’s where positions are made clear, negotiations unfold and a robust give-and-take crafts final recommendations.
Just because those recommendations make it to an open meeting of the full Port Authority Board does not mean the public is informed as to the important underlying reasons for them — reasons that are inherently in the public interest.
Rather than simply defending the practice, it would be helpful for board members to articulate why there is a need for secrecy on the subcommittee level. What sorts of deliberative information should, by nature, be withheld from the public, whose business is being conducted?
The authority has three subcommittees. One deals with the budget and business plan. One looks at how the tax revenue generated will be used to incentivize projects. The third is busy conducting a search for the authority’s future executive director.10 comments on this story
Each concerns the public directly. Some subcommittee work may fall under exceptions granted by the Open and Public Meetings Act. In those cases, a motion could be made to close a portion of the meeting, with an explanation as to why.
Openness should be the authority’s default mode. Exceptions should be noted and explained.
If the authority’s board cannot appreciate the public-trust issues at stake here, lawmakers, who established the rules and parameters of the authority and its board, should revisit the matter and mandate that subcommittees operate in the sunshine.
The Port Authority is too big and too important to the state’s economy to do otherwise.