SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Inland Port Authority continued to be the target of more criticism and calls for increased transparency on Tuesday.
Ahead of the Utah Inland Port Authority's third meeting on Wednesday, opponents of the creation of the massive global trade hub in west Salt Lake City criticized the authority's $1.9 million draft budget for lacking detail.
Meanwhile, the Salt Lake County Council unanimously voted to approve a resolution calling for increased transparency, about a month after the port board decided to keep its subcommittee meetings closed to the public. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams also signaled support for the resolution.
The morning before the council's vote, a group of community, environmental and civic organizations called on the port authority to fund analysis of potential environmental impacts rather than use $300,000 for "something loosely defined as 'community engagement,' which may simply consist of hiring a public relations firm, but the lack of detail makes it unclear,'" the coalition of groups wrote in a news release issued Tuesday.
"The port board is proposing to adopt a budget to spend (nearly) $2 million in taxpayer dollars without a plan or any reasonable accountability to the taxpayers," said Richard Holman, co-chairman of the Westside Coalition.
According to the draft, the port authority is planning to have $1.975 million in revenue this year, including $1.5 million in ongoing appropriations from the state for the authority's operations, and $475,000 in one-time funds for an economic development plan.
For ongoing operations, the draft budget includes $300,000 for personnel expenses (estimated for seven months), $75,000 in legal fees for support from the Utah Attorney General's Office or outside counsel, $37,500 for administrative costs, $12,000 for accounting and other professional services, and $10,500 for miscellaneous office supplies.
It also includes $15,000 for "travel," according to the draft budget, estimating costs for three trips at $5,000 each, and $300,000 for "community engagement," which may include "contracted support," according to the draft budget.
Included in the proposal is an asterisk noting the document is a "draft" for "discussion purposes only."
Derek Miller, the port authority board's chairman and president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said in a text message the draft budget will be discussed by the full board Wednesday.
"It would be inappropriate for me to comment prior to the meeting and outside of a public hearing," Miller said.
Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council who has been among some of the most vocal critics of the inland port, called for more money to be invested in impact studies.
"Rather than funding a P.R. firm to sell the port to the public, the port authority needs to invest taxpayer dollars in developing a sound analysis of various planning scenarios and their environmental consequences including an environmental impact statement and health impact assessment," Owen said in a prepared statement. "This analysis can be the foundation of a truly impactful community engagement strategy."
Heather Dove, president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon, echoed those concerns.
"We continue to be gravely concerned about the detrimental environmental and health impacts this port will inevitably bring," Dove said in prepared statement. "We strongly urge the $300,000 earmarked for community engagement to be spent instead on hiring a nationally recognized third party to conduct thorough research and analysis on environmental and health impacts."
The coalition of west-side residents and environmental groups has recently criticized the inland port board for holding closed-door subcommittee meetings — meetings with up to five members of the 11-member board that state attorneys say aren't subject to the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act because they do not constitute a quorum.
The draft budget was prepared by one of the three subcommittees, tasked with doing the prep work necessary to bring before the full board. Port board leaders have said no actions can be taken until they come before the full board in a public meeting.
After discussing plans last week to formalize demands for increased transparency from the inland port board, Salt Lake County Councilmen Richard Snelgrove proposed a resolution during Tuesday's work session to call on the port authority to open its subcommittees.
"Now is the time for Salt Lake County to go on record that, No. 1, the public must have confidence in the decision-making process, and No. 2, the inland port decisionmakers need to know the public is watching," Snelgrove said.
The resolution called on the port board to "hold all board and subcommittee meetings in an open and public manner" unless convened under closed-meeting provisions that allow meetings to be exempt under the state's Open and Public Meeting Act, for issues dealing with personnel, contract or real estate discussions.
Snelgrove said the state's open meetings laws are "the best antidote against any shady real estate deals and the best way to maintain the public's trust in the development of the inland port."
County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw backed the resolution, noting that many local leaders have supported the inland port as a "concept," but "the rollout has clearly been a bit fraught."
"But the sparring of elected officials aside, the most disappointing aspect for me is the way in which residents of Salt Lake City have felt left out and frankly ignored as part of this process and not able to have their voices heard," Bradshaw said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams also supported the resolution.
County Councilman Michael Jensen, who represents the county on the inland port board, reminded council members the port board has already committed to following the state's open meeting law and goes "above and beyond" by allowing public comment for each action item in its meetings.
Though Jensen supported the motion for increased transparency, he indicated there may already be work happening to address concerns.
"We're not going to meet as work groups anymore," adding that the board might not have subcommittee meetings until after it hires an executive director "hopefully" by November.5 comments on this story
"We don't even know if we're going to have standing committees or not, but I'll advocate that we open those up," he said. "So in the interim I'm going to ask for some possible changes at tomorrow's board meeting."
Recently Jensen has faced calls for his resignation from the port board after an investigative report into his time as chief at the Unified Fire Authority was released from the Utah Attorney General's Office, which resulted in no criminal charges but detailed "troubling" behavior such as questionable spending and a "culture of fear" under his leadership.