Inland port meeting blows up over whether Utah political leaders would be breaking the law

SALT LAKE CITY -- It was not the way they wanted to start a meeting.

Shortly after it began, the inaugural meeting of the Inland Port Authority board was forced to adjourn because no members had been empaneled and any action they take would be illegal under Utah's public meetings laws.

The inland port has been billed as the largest economic development project in state history. It would be a mix of road, rail and air to import and export goods from Utah. It will be located in Salt Lake City's Northwest Quadrant, a site of massive development including a UPS hub and Amazon's fulfillment center. The entire project could set the stage for global trade in Utah yielding billions of dollars.

The Northwest Quadrant (graphic by Russ Slade, FOX 13 News)

The legislature passed a bill earlier this year to create an Inland Port Authority. Salt Lake City has raised concerns it's a "land grab" that would have them put in infrastructure but residents wouldn't get tax benefits from it. Environmental groups have also raised concerns about pollution in the area affecting wetlands and wildlife, as well as significant impact to Salt Lake City's air quality.

The governor signed the bill and then tried to negotiate a compromise between Salt Lake City and legislative leaders. Those talks broke down, and then House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, began closed-door talks with Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City. They came up with a compromise without Salt Lake City's mayor or city council.

So far, Mayor Jackie Biskupski has said her office continues to negotiate with the bill's original sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, while the council appears more willing to negotiate with Speaker Hughes.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, at the inland port meeting. (Image by Eric Brown, FOX 13 News)

Gov. Gary Herbert convened the first meeting for the controversial project before a packed room of environmentalists, community activists, political leaders and lobbyists. But then Speaker Hughes raised concerns about proceeding without an oath administered to board members. That led to dueling legal opinions from the legislature's lawyers and the Utah Attorney General's Office about whether an oath constituted paperwork or raising of the right hand.

Some members of the board (including the Speaker) have not yet submitted conflict-of-interest disclosure forms. Another member, Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, owned land within five miles of the inland port and had to resign from the port authority.

A frustrated Gov. Herbert said he wanted to push forward because the meeting was merely meant to be organizational and informational, but the Speaker again objected. Salt Lake Chamber President Derek Miller suggested they put off the meeting to another date when everyone can get conflict-of-interest paperwork and other necessary things together.

"Why can't we make that in the form of a motion?" the governor asked.

"Because were not empaneled," Speaker Hughes piped up.

Ultimately, the meeting adjourned with no action. Many in the room appeared baffled by what they just saw.

"It just goes to show you when you do legislation behind closed doors and present it in the 11th hour of the last day of the session, you have a mess," Mayor Biskupski told FOX 13 as she left the meeting. "That's what we have."

The first meeting of the Inland Port Authority that ended as soon as it started. (Image by Eric Brown, FOX 13 News)

After the meeting, Speaker Hughes said he aborted the meeting because he wanted to make sure it was done right in the face of potential legal situations and negotiations with Salt Lake City.

"I don't want to start in a place where there are questions or there are challenges to how the process has begun," he told FOX 13. "Out of an abundance of caution, I think we need to look at this bill and make sure we're following it right. At this point right now, I don't think that's where we were."

Community activists with concerns about the inland port smirked at how the meeting went, but were glad they didn't break the law. The League of Women Voters called on members of the Inland Port Authority to post conflict-of-interest disclosures online and be more transparent as decision making goes forward.

"They are embarking on a very ambitious project that could have a great impact on all the members of our state and to be successful, they need to build trust with the community," said Dorothy Owen of the Westpoint Community Council.

Environmentalists called for zero polluting or lower polluting equipment to be used to preserve the air quality. They also feared the inland port could harm precious wetlands at the Great Salt Lake for millions of birds and other wildlife. Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity would not rule out litigation as the inland port moves forward.

"Absolutely. There are huge issues associated with this project. Air quality is just one of the issues," she said. "We have enormous concerns and we've been consulting with attorneys."