As Gibson police probe continues, Utah DNR head remains supportive

Tuesday , January 23, 2018 - 12:00 AM1 comment

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

SALT LAKE CITY — Flood-mitigation efforts years ago along the Weber River in western Weber County may be at the heart of the police probe into Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson, says Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Michael Styler.

Gibson said proximity of land he partially owns to the Weber River in the area aided by the flood-prevention effort may have spurred the Ogden Police Department inquiry, according to Styler. Styler tabbed Gibson on Dec. 12 to join the DNR as one of two deputy directors, just before news publicly emerged of the investigation, putting the job offer on hold.

“We said, ‘What is it about?’” Styler said Friday, recalling his response on learning of the police inquiry targeting Gibson, the day after Gibson announced plans to step down as county commissioner to take the DNR post. “He said, ‘I don’t know. Nobody will tell me.’”

RELATED: Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson facing Ogden police investigation

But Gibson, who’s denied any wrongdoing, has his suspicions.

He told Styler he thinks the investigation may stem from the county-led $20 million flood mitigation initiative along the Weber River in western Weber County, spurred by 2011 flooding and completed in 2015. The feds funded the bulk of the effort, which led to improvements to Willard Canal and the Little Weber River Cutoff Channel, all meant to keep the Weber River from flooding during water surges, like spring thaws.

Gibson spearheaded the project.

The work also called for upgrades to flood-control systems near the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, clearing debris from the Weber River and straightening the waterway in spots to improve flow, Styler said.

“Rumor that I heard is that someone has alleged some of this property where the river channelizing went by was Gibson property,” Styler said, speaking from DNR headquarters in Salt Lake City. “Well, it probably was, but so what? They did it past everyone’s property because you can’t have a channelized stream all the way except on one spot. That’s a bottleneck. You have to treat everything the same.”

RELATED: New way of thinking about Weber River after lessons of flooding

In fact, an entity called GGA LLC owns 426 acres on 32 rural parcels in western Weber County, part of it along the eastern bank of the Weber River, west of 4700 West and north of 1150 South, according to Weber County property tax records. Gibson, also a dairy farmer, is one of four principals in GGA, according to Utah state business records.

What’s more, the Little Weber River Cutoff Channel, an east-west creek converted into a concrete channel in a one-mile stretch in the flood-mitigation project, sits just west of GGA land.

The canal serves as a relief valve when the Weber River fills its banks. The upgrade to the waterway spurred opposition from owners of one impacted parcel, though the work ultimately was completed.

RELATED: Weber County OKs use of eminent domain to complete Little Weber channel

Styler doesn’t know what about the project, in particular, would have sparked questions leading to the police inquiry, nor if it was unquestionably the spur. Whatever the case, he thinks Gibson’s motivations in overseeing the flood-control efforts were on the up-and-up.

“My belief is Kerry acted honorably. If this is, in fact, what the investigation is about, he truly was looking out for the interests of all the property owners along the stretch where flooding was experienced,” Styler said. “I don’t think he would’ve ever considered giving himself or his family or his property any special treatment. I believe Kerry was genuinely wanting to alleviate flooding problems that hit Weber County.”

RELATED: Weber County Commissioner Gibson denies wrongdoing, says he'll stay in post

Peter Stirba, Gibson’s lawyer, wouldn’t comment on Styler’s assertions, but he said the issues at the root of the police investigation “are quite ancient in history.”

While lauding police for doing “a very thorough and complete investigation,” he also charged that political maneuvering may be behind whatever led to the inquiry.

“I think it’s obvious somebody wanted to cause Commissioner Gibson some grief,” Stirba said.

Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt said the investigation continues, but wouldn’t say how much longer it will take or provide other details. 

“Still investigating. It’s gone longer than I thought it would go,” he said.

Soon after police revealed Gibson was the focus of an inquiry, he put plans to take the DNR job on hold and rescinded his planned resignation as a county commissioner so he could take the state post.

The DNR spot remains open as the inquiry proceeds and Styler awaits its conclusion.

Gibson said last month that he would stay on as county commission “until my name is cleared,” and Styler said once things are “settled or not settled, then we’ll talk further.”

Gibson and Styler, both former state representatives, worked together in the Legislature. Styler said Gibson’s county and state government experience and his roots as a farmer factored in his decision to offer him the deputy director spot in the DNR.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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