SALT LAKE CITY — Some members of the Salt Lake County Council this week demanded increased transparency from the Utah Inland Port Authority, weighing in on the controversy over the port authority board's recent vote to keep its subcommittees closed to the public.
But the county's appointee on the board, County Councilman Michael Jensen, who is facing calls for his resignation from the port board amid controversy over his behavior as a former fire chief, explained to his peers why it made sense to the board to keep the subcommittees closed, at least for now.
Jensen also said after the port authority hires its executive director and staff, then he expects the roles of the subcommittees — or "working groups" as he called them — will transform, and he'll "push" to open them to the public.
But Salt Lake County Councilman Richard Snelgrove, a Republican, said now is the time to open the three subcommittee meetings, which are tasked with doing the initial legwork to hire an executive director, set the port authority's budget and decide how to use the port authority's tax revenue to incentivize projects.
"Transparency's a good thing," Snelgrove said. "It's the only antidote the public has against shady deals."
Snelgrove told his fellow council members he's exploring the possibility of drafting a resolution that the County Council won't approve of any county services in support of the inland port as long as the port authority board's subcommittees remain closed.
The port board's subcommittees are made up of no more than five members of the port authority board and don't constitute a quorum, meaning the meetings aren't required to be open to the public under the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act, according to state attorneys.
But Snelgrove argued the meetings — especially if they deal with issues including land transaction — need to be conducted in open air.
"Otherwise, even if everything's aboveboard, it's going to lend itself to suspicion on the part of the public," Snelgrove said. "They can make their own conclusions on what's a shady deal or what's not."
Stuart Clason, Salt Lake County's regional economic development division director and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' appointee on the inland port board, said he appreciated Snelgrove's sentiment.
"As a board member ... I can rest assured that I'm not going to be associated with anything I'm very uncomfortable with to the point I'd quit my job before," Clason said, noting that it's a "worthwhile" conversation to have with board leadership.
County Councilman Jim Bradley, a Democrat, said he "couldn't agree more" with Snelgrove and spoke in support of a resolution.
But Jensen chimed in, saying it "would be helpful for everyone to understand" that the port authority board is following the state's open meetings laws, but the board is in a difficult situation without having any staff yet, and the subcommittees are acting more like "work groups" until the board can hire an executive director to manage work that needs to be done before it can come to the full board.
Plus, Jensen pointed out no action can be taken within any of the subcommittees — they have to report to the full board first.
"I think there will be a different conversation once you get past hiring an executive director because it does change part of the scope of what the board is doing now," Jensen said.
"In spirit, we've agreed we're going to follow the open meetings act," Jensen continued. "If there's a group, a work group (that) needs to go work out those kinds of administrative functions between now and the executive director (is hired), I think it's important that that small group be able to go do those things."
Once staff is hired, Jensen said he'll push for open subcommittees once the work groups morph into a more formal form.
"Once we get standing committees, absolutely we're going to open them," Jensen said. "I'll even be the one to push it."
Jensen also noted that the port authority board has already taken some steps to go above and beyond the open meetings act, indicating the board decided to not only take public input at the bottom of its agenda during its August meeting, but also take public comment multiple times throughout the meeting.3 comments on this story
The County Council took no action on the matter at its Tuesday meeting, but Snelgrove indicated he'd begin drafting a resolution.
Councilwoman Jenny Wilson and Bradley both said they felt comfortable with Clason and Jensen representing the county on the port board and reporting back, but they both expressed a desire to quell public concerns about the board's transparency.
"I continue to have deep empathy for residents who are affected by it and hope that this is going to work out well," Wilson said. "But to me, it's just hope at this point, to be honest."