Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Salt Lake City Council Chair Erin Mendenhall is joined by Gov. Gary R. Herbert and other legislative and local elected leaders as she talks about consensus recommendations for the Utah Inland Port from the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.

A governmental crisis is happening in Salt Lake City thanks to the state Legislature granting power in 2018 to non-elected officials of the Inland Port Authority, who now hold executive power over land-use jurisdiction in the city.

What is now becoming obvious in the initial phase of inland port activity is the evidence of failure in split governance for this project. We have witnessed debates over open meetings and transparency in the dealings of the Inland Port Board, and more recently in the Deseret News we learned of a whisper discussion for a candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City between a board member and the executive director of the authority at a public meeting.

The Inland Port suffers from having two bosses. A university business professor will tell you that is a no-no of the worst kind. For example, what master, Salt Lake City or the port authority, will decide the level of police authority and protection? Who will determine the level of critical facilities such as sewer and water? Or of fire protection and paramedic operations? Zoning decisions have typically been in the tool kit of cities. Who will decide zoning functions now? Will the airport make decisions benefiting the port or will disagreement create governmental crisis? The state has none of those services and must depend on Salt Lake City to provide them. The critical question has always been: Do we trust and give authority to elected officials in Salt Lake City, or to non-elected authority leaders?

And, of course, the biggest question: Who will pay for these services to the port? The state may grant some funding to the city, but will it use that to leverage leadership issues at the port? For example, Salt Lake City is now building a new sewage treatment plant to support increasing population growth and to meet more restrictive federal and state environmental regulations. Expanded sewer and water transmission lines will support the growth at the inland port. Will the authority pay its share, or leave that to current city residents who will get no direct value from the port? These serious questions come on top of the already-strained tax base of the capital city. It’s a city that subsidizes directly services from commuters who pay nothing in taxes and double the city population every working day.

A clause remains in the Utah Constitution — the Ripper Clause — that on first reading appears to state our legislative governance plan for the port is out of line. Lawyers and legal scholars disagree on its power to regulate the inland port. One opinion says that the state has stepped into troubled waters. The other emphasizes the inherent legislative power over almost any local authority.

Here’s what the Utah State Constitution Article VI, Section 28 says: “The Legislature shall not delegate to any special commission, private corporation or association, any power to make, supervise or interfere with any municipal improvement, money, property or effects, whether held in trust or otherwise, to levy taxes, to select a capitol site, or to perform any municipal functions.”

2 comments on this story

Whether the Ripper Clause would restore Salt Lake City authority to govern and run the inland port or the state through the Inland Port Authority is a broad legal question only solved by the Utah State Supreme Court. It is essential we now put this issue to rest by an action of the court. The question remains who will file the legal question and who will pay large legal bills to try it in the court. For those reasons we may not see action.

But regardless of the Ripper Clause, how does a two-headed governance scheme work? We have no real example of that from which to work. I doubt we can trust a massive operation like the Utah Inland Port to be an experiment in two-headed government. We have too much at stake. I want to support those who are elected and directly responsible to the people over those who are appointed have no accountability to voters in regular elections.