The Inland Port, so far, is mostly about politics

If you like politics, you gotta love the inland port project.

The politics swirling around this issue has been of near-Trumpian proportions. It had Hughes vs. Herbert; Hughes vs. Miller; Hughes and Dabakis vs. Biskupski; Biskupski vs. the Republican world; questions about multiple conflicts of interest; disagreements over rules of procedure; disagreement over whether a special session is warranted to change conflicts of interest provisions – all with an undercurrent of gubernatorial ambition.

The inland port is a terrific project, with great potential to provide a big boost to Utah’s economy, bringing thousands of jobs. It’s very important to get it off to a good start, and Gov. Gary Herbert appears committed to doing so.

That’s what he thought he was doing when he convened a meeting of the newly appointed members of the Inland Port Authority several days ago at the Capitol. The idea was to get organized, select a chairperson, run through the governing rules, and make plans to proceed.

Shortly after the governor convened the meeting, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes tossed a few grenades into the middle of the discussion as he questioned whether the meeting was properly constituted, whether the members had been properly sworn in (they had signed swearing-in documents, but hadn’t been sworn in verbally), whether open meetings statutes were being properly followed, whether all members should be present (a few were missing), whether conflicts of interest existed among a variety of members, and so forth.

Herbert was clearly not amused at the hijacking of the meeting. There’s never been a lot of love lost between him and Hughes, anyway. The meeting featured dueling legal opinions by the Legislature’s top attorney and an assistant Utah attorney general; questions about conflicts of interest that even pulled in the director of Utah Department of Transportation (because UDOT obviously owns land within five miles of the proposed inland port development), and even whether Derek Miller, the relatively new president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber had a conflict because . . . well, I couldn’t really figure that one out.

With the meeting having been thoroughly blown up, it adjourned unceremoniously.

It was clear that at least part of what happened at the meeting was really a battle over who would become the chair of the Inland Port Authority. Miller, a long-time close associate of the governor, apparently had the votes in that first meeting to become chair. Hughes apparently didn’t want the vote to take place because he needed his allies to be present. 

For Hughes, running the high-profile Inland Port Authority would have been a nice perch from which to maintain a high profile in advance of a 2020 gubernatorial campaign.

So Hughes won that initial skirmish, postponing any vote on the chairmanship. But soon after he was engulfed in questions about his own conflicts of interest – he owns properties within the five-mile buffer – and on Tuesday he withdrew from the board position he had appointed himself to.

I like Greg Hughes. I think he has a good heart, even as a hard-charging politician. And I agree with him that the conflict-of-interest provisions of the law creating the Inland Port Authority are a little silly. The five-mile rule takes in a lot of downtown Salt Lake City. It’s hard to see how someone who owns apartments in the city should be conflicted out of serving on the board.

Still, Hughes helped shepherd the bill through the Legislature. It obviously would have been much better had sensible ethics rules been written into the bill that passed, instead of suggesting a special session be held after-the-fact to fix the conflicts provisions.

Hughes, of all people, had to be aware of the terrible optics of watering down the conflicts provisions. As the former board chair of the Utah Transit Authority, he knows that perception is often much more important than reality.  

If the Legislature changed the ethics rules just so Hughes could serve on the authority and possibly as chair, I’m not sure he would politically survive the uproar. 

Do Hughes did the right thing by withdrawing. This was not a fight he could win. It’s too bad, because Hughes could contribute a great deal to make the project a success. He demonstrated terrific leadership on the downtown homeless issue, and could do the same for the inland port.

But if Miller becomes chair of the Inland Port Authority, he will do an excellent job. While he also has political ambitions (he nearly ran for the U.S. Senate this year), it’s likely any political race for Miller is some years in the future, given his recent appointment to the Chamber job.