Open meetings laws broken by board considering ATVs on Antelope Island

Tuesday , November 21, 2017 - 4:18 PM

BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Jesse Watson points a spotting scope at a pair of burrowing owls on Antelope Island State Park on Thursday, May 18, 2017.

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Board of Parks and Recreation, along with several other boards within the Utah Department of Natural Resources, haven’t been following public records law.

The Utah Open and Public Meetings Act requires state bodies to post agendas, minutes, handouts and audio recordings of all public meetings on the Utah Public Notice website. An investigation by the Standard-Examiner found that as of last week, the parks board had not posted these records for at least the past three years.

“We were under the impression that all boards were operating in accordance, that’s clearly, clearly not the case,” said Nathan Schwebach, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources. “So there’s some area for improvement.”

State agencies have been required to submit these records to the Utah Public Notice website since 2008. Officials with Utah State Archives, which manages the public notice site, confirmed they don’t delete any records once they’re submitted.

Meeting minutes track what the board discusses, and document board members’ attendance and how they vote. Agendas provide notice of upcoming meetings and a general idea of the talking points and action items. Audio recordings, of course, provide a record of the open meeting in its entirety.

The absence of these records isn’t usually noticed until a board wants to make a decision that might affect taxpayers’ activities or wallets. For the Board of Parks and Recreation, murmurs about ATVs and off-highway vehicles being allowed on Antelope Island especially raised alarm about the board’s discussions.

“It’s the ATV thing on Antelope Island that’s got people worked up. Prior to that, we haven’t heard much,” said Fred Hayes, Director of State Parks and Recreation. “Our board meetings are usually pretty calm. Nobody comes, nobody cares, nobody does anything about them.”

There aren’t posted records of how often, or if ever, the board discussed allowing ATVs on Antelope Island. Without posting agendas prior to meetings, there wasn’t a way for interested parties to know if a meeting would be worth going to.

Among its powers, the State Parks and Recreation board reviews long-term management plans in parks and approves recreational activities. They also recommend changes to fees. 

RELATEDATVs could be coming to Antelope Island State Park

State Parks and Recreation manages 43 parks and will have a budget of nearly $36 million in 2018. Last year, they collected $19 million in gate revenue and $29 million in total revenue — the division also gets funding from off-highway vehicle registration, boat registration and fuel taxes.

The State Parks and Recreation board doesn’t make decisions about these funds, Hayes said, but they do approve grants for recreational trail programs. Nine people are appointed to the board by the governor. They represent various counties in the state. A list of board members and their backgrounds is included at the bottom of this story. 

Hayes has served as director of the division for about five years. He said he wasn’t aware the board was violating the Open and Public Meetings Act until he prepared a presentation on transparency for a meeting last week.

State Parks and Recreation randomly posted audio to the public notice site in 2015. Apart from that, it appears the division hasn’t posted any minutes, handouts or recordings since at least 2010.

State statute also requires the board meet quarterly, which also does not appear to happen based on the agendas submitted.

“We appreciate you calling us out on that so we can get it fixed. And we will get it fixed,” Hayes said. 

Enforcing the laws that regulate state boards is on the shoulders of the Utah State Auditor and Attorney General. Nicole Toomey Davis with the auditor’s office said she didn’t recall the Department of Natural Resources coming under investigation for lack of transparency, but that doesn’t mean the rules aren’t being violated.

“Can they make stuff happen, are they a body doing public work? If so, they’re subject to open meetings (law),” Davis said, noting that other state agencies likely fall short. “It seems hard for people to want to comply with open and public meetings.”

Within DNR, the Geological Survey Board, the Board of Water Resources and the Executive Water Task Force also seem to fall short in transparency requirements. Meanwhile, the Division of Wildlife Resources and Division of Oil, Gas and Mining seem to be complying. 

The seventh division within DNR — Forestry, Fire and State Lands — does not have a board.

RELATEDGovernor's water committee operates outside open-meeting rules

After hearing from the Attorney General’s office on Monday, Schwebach said minutes and agendas have been posted to the Utah State Parks website. He expects to bring other divisions up to snuff by the end of the year and train each board on open meetings requirements.

The department is still trying to get a handle on how extensive the problem is, he said.

“It’s a bit of an internal audit — I hate using that word, but that’s in reality kind of what we have to do,” he said. “Some boards are totally in compliance. We have other boards, like parks, that were deficient and that’s unfortunate. We have an obligation to the public to be transparent and forthcoming with information.”

UTAH BOARD OF STATE PARKS AND RECREATION

• Jaren Davis, Chair — represents Salt Lake, Toole and Summit counties. Davis owns JLD Development.

• Bob Murri, Vice Chair — represents Davis, Weber and Morgan counties. Murri is an executive at Ascent Construction, Inc.

Doug Thompson — represents Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties. Thompson is a retired spokesman for Logan Regional Hospital and a past mayor of Logan.

Corey Cram — represents Beaver, Iron and Washington counties. Cram is a member of the Utah Association of Special Districts Board of Trustees and associate general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

• Ryan Starks — represents Wasatch, Utah, Juab and Millard counties. Starks is executive director at the Wasatch Economic Development/Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Office. He is also an adjuct business professor at BYU.

• Lesha Coltharp — represents Uintah, Daggett and Duchesne counties. Coltharp is a travel and tourism specialist at Uintah County Travel & Tourism.

• Claudia Jarrett — serves the State At-Large. Jarrett is a Sanpete County commissioner.

• Kevin Christensen — represents Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne, Garfield and Kane counties. Christensen works Sanpete County in Economic Development and Travel and Tourism.

• Kimberly Schappert — represents Emery, Carbon, Grand and San Juan counties. Schappert is executive director of the Moab Trails Alliance. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.