UTOPIA officials bullish about possible major partnership

Saturday , November 30, 2013 - 4:49 PM

Tim Gurrister, Standard-Examiner Staff

PDF: Copy of a signed UTOPIA non-disclosure agreement.

OGDEN — Citing broad support, UTOPIA officials are defending their secrecy behind a possible major new partner and project for the struggling fiber-optic network.

And while one critic has apparently been silenced, others remain.

The agency has drawn fire for having elected officials for the 11 cities funding the struggling UTOPIA since the late 1990s sign non-disclosure agreements in recent weeks on the potential new project.

In a Nov. 14 story, Perry City Attorney Duncan Murray compared the NDAs to a mugging, saying he and other officials had to go along in order to be apprized of UTOPIA’s taxpayer-funded plans. He lambasted the agency in a long tirade, calling the NDA practice potentially illegal.

In response to the publicity and an editorial calling the NDAs a violation of the intent of Utah’s open meetings law, UTOPIA board members recently met with the Standard-Examiner’s editorial board.

Murray was rumored to be coming along, but didn’t and officials said that since he had been further advised about the non-disclosable project, he’d changed his stance.

Called for comment, Murray would only say he would no longer talk about the NDAs “for now.”

The officials assembled at the newspaper admitted that a publicly funded agency asking its elected leadership to sign NDAs was a first, and an awkward one.

But they called it necessary to protect proprietary interests and trade secrets of the Internet giant eyeing UTOPIA.

Those signing the NDAs are basically behind the project, they said.

“A few didn’t seem overly thrilled,” said Wayne Pyle, West Valley City’s city manager and chairman of the UTOPIA board of directors.

Of the officials from the 11 cities who signed their NDAs and heard the limited details, Pyle said all seem to be “on board, supportive, or scared to oppose it.”

But steadfast in their non-disclosure, the officials gave only generic detail on what’s coming as a huge opportunity involving a major company mirroring Google’s involvement with Utah County.

The non-disclosed potential partner was pleased at the support shown by the NDA-signing officials, said Alex Jensen, Layton city manager and UTOPIA board member.

“The elected officials have said ‘Go ahead’ and they’re going ahead,” he said of the unnamed company. “They’re retaining engineers and economists.”

Layton City Attorney Gary Crane and UTOPIA media consultant Dave Owen joined the group in saying the suitor is developing its proposal for potential public disclosure and ratification.

But no one could say when.

Pyle said if the proposal comes to fruition “down the road,” it will be discussed in open meetings “with no NDAs, no restrictions on information.”

After the meeting Pyle said some 50 or more officials from the 11 cities signed NDAs, but he didn’t have the exact figure.

Since Brigham City Mayor Dennis Fife and City Councilwoman Ruth Jensen refused to sign their NDAs, officials who did sign them — other council members as well as City Manager Bruce Leonard, and City Finance Director Jason Roberts, currently the city’s representative on the UTOPIA board of directors — can not legally brief them on the potential UTOPIA project.

“I don’t care,” Fife said.

“They know how I feel. (UTOPIA executives) are not welcome in the city offices.”

Fife had served as the city’s representative on the board, but now sends Roberts instead. He stopped attending meetings more than two years ago out of frustration at the agency’s corporate ways relying on more and more taxpayer money.

In private business, UTOPIA would have shut down long ago, Fife said, with its well-documented problems completing the fiber-optics network amid increasing expenditures.

Fife, leaving office in January after declining to seek reelection, would have liked to find a way to pull the city out of UTOPIA, and its newly formed sister agency, UIA, for Utah Infrastructure Agency, under which it now bonds.

He said another entity could easily be found to better run the city’s fiber-optic grid and more rapidly retire the city’s UTOPIA bonds, currently costing $430,000 a year.

“It’s a nightmare.”

Contact reporter Tim Gurrister at (801)625-4238, tgurrister@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @tgurrister.

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