SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 30 years ago, I endured a blistering rebuke from a high-level Utah government official because I had reported that the state’s cold fusion advisory committee closed its meeting to reporters.
You remember cold fusion … or maybe you don’t. By now, an entire generation was supposed to have been warmed by its glow. Instead, anyone under 35 probably hasn’t heard of it.
The passage of time can be cruel to things people once felt were important. The cold fusion balloon is shriveled and crammed into a dusty corner of state history, so it may be hard to remember how full of gas it once was.
I had quoted a local attorney who said that, because the committee was talking about how to spend taxpayer money, taxpayers ought to know what was being said.
But on that day in 1989, the high-level official told me I just didn’t understand how big cold fusion was going to be for Utah. Here I was, worried about something as insignificant as whether a meeting was open or closed, when something much larger was at stake, he said.
That’s a stark example of government secrecy, but not an isolated one. In 32 years of covering politics in Utah, I’ve got a file cabinet full of them.
In the mid-'80s, I was covering a tense Salt Lake County budget hearing. Revenues were flat and needs were great. The county commissioners in charge of the meeting called for a 15-minute break to calm everyone down.
Those 15 minutes turned into nearly an hour before I and other reporters became suspicious. We found them, together with all county administrators, huddled in a conference room in the auditor’s office. Their faces dropped as we walked in.
Ten years ago, members of the West Jordan City Council were surprised to see a lot of regular folks at a work session to discuss the budget. That almost never happens. They welcomed this by speaking in tones so soft audience members couldn’t hear a word. The mayor at the time said budget decisions are hard, and it’s even harder to make them in front of an audience.
That sums it up fairly succinctly. Convincing, yes, except politicians are hired by voters to handle tax money they force the public to pay. They don’t have the luxury corporate board members have when discussing money customers pay voluntarily.
To quote the musical “Hamilton,” politicians learn quickly that “winning was easy … governing is harder.”
Which brings me to the Utah Inland Port Authority Board. It is charged with setting up and administering a port in the northwest corner of Salt Lake City that will handle customs and distribution for what could be billions of dollars in goods — something proponents believe will spur growth and strengthen the local economy. In recent days, its three committees have been meeting behind closed doors.
Of all the public bodies in the state, this one ought to be the most concerned with transparency. The authority was formed in the shadows and introduced during the final hours of this year’s legislative session. Salt Lake City’s mayor has complained of being blindsided, and that the authority usurps the city’s powers. Two of the authority’s original board members, including the speaker of the House, resigned because they had property interests too close to the project.
The authority board's chairman, Derek Miller, said the board is subject to the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act, but its committees are not. Those committees consist of four or five members of the 11-member board, which isn’t enough to constitute a quorum.8 comments on this story
Media attorney Jeff Hunt disagrees. Using that reasoning, he told me, any local government “could just outsource all the work of the board and put it under wraps by delegating it to a committee.”
The open meetings act exists to have politicians deliberate the public’s business openly, not to simply present a final decision for a public vote. Otherwise, why have such a law at all?
Take it from someone who has been around awhile. This sounds a lot like cold fusion, with the exception that international trade has the potential to keep a lot more homes heated in the winter and cooled in the summer.
No public purpose is so important that the public shouldn’t see what’s happening.