Getting out from under UTOPIA's lien

Dec 18 2009 - 8:38pm

Again and again, UTOPIA has managed to pull the wool over the eyes of mayors and city councils in the 11 cities who have pledged sales tax support to this government-owned and -operated telecom system. Despite having failed to live up to their promises, UTOPIA's siren song of ubiquitous broadband spurring economic development lulls otherwise sober elected officials into ignoring UTOPIA's glaring deficits.

The Utah Taxpayers Association has been aware for months that UTOPIA and Brigham City have been asking residents to sign up for a $3,000 lien to pay for a connection to UTOPIA. Believing that at most a handful of residents would sign up for that lien, if they had full information, the Taxpayers Association did not oppose that effort.

When UTOPIA presented the City Council with a roll of 1,600 residences who had signed up for UTOPIA, the Taxpayers Association worried that the residents who had signed up did so without full information. To verify whether those concerns were accurate, the Taxpayers Association sent out a mailer to all Brigham City residents, asking Brigham City residents if they had full information before they signed up for UTOPIA's proposed $3,000 lien.

Having sent many mail pieces on various issues, the Taxpayers Association is all too well aware that mail pieces typically elicit very low response rates. Even a very good mail piece generates at most a 3 percent response, so the Association was shocked by the overwhelming response to this post card.

In the week after the Taxpayers Association sent its mailer, more than 100 Brigham City residents who signed up for the UTOPIA lien called the Taxpayers Association's office. While a couple of them were aware of the terms of UTOPIA's lien, the overwhelming majority, 90 percent or more, did not know about the lien, the interest they would be paying, etc.

Some of the residents the Taxpayers Association spoke with explicitly asked UTOPIA's represenatives what it would mean to sign the UTOPIA documents. The responses those residents received varied greatly. Some people were told that their signature just gave permission to come onto their property and dig the trenches that would connect their home to UTOPIA. Others were told that the document simply outlined legally what the boundaries of their property were. Still others were told that signing the documents was merely an expression of support for UTOPIA, not a legally binding contract.

Based on the feedback the Taxpayers Association received, it's abundantly clear that many, many residents did not have full and accurate information before they signed up for the UTOPIA lien. That evidence is bolstered by the number of irate Brigham City residents who came to the Dec. 10 city council meeting on UTOPIA. Hundreds of residents filled the council chambers, the landing outside the council chambers, the stairs, and spilled into the foyer downstairs.

The procedures for the public comment period that Brigham City Mayor LouAnn Christensen outlined made it very easy to identify how many people at the hearing supported or opposed the UTOPIA lien. During the 10 minutes set aside for supporters of UTOPIA to state their case, only supporters of UTOPIA could be in the city council chambers proper; opponents had to wait on the landing, the stairs or the foyer below. Similarly, during the 10 minutes provided for opponents of UTOPIA's lien to state their case, only opponents of UTOPIA could be in the council chambers. The number of residents pressing to get into the council room but for whom there were not enough seats showed that the overwhelming majority of the residents attending the meeting were determined to find a way out from under UTOPIA's thumb.

By contrast, UTOPIA and its supporters brought supportive mayors, city council members, and other public officials from other UTOPIA cities. Even with their artificially boosted attendance, UTOPIA could not fill the seats in the city council chambers during the portion of the 10-minute public comment period provided for UTOPIA supporters.

Despite the residents' clear desire to get out from under UTOPIA's lien, Brigham City's lame-duck city council refused to consider letting the residents out of these liens, and instead forged ahead with their brave, new world.

Undeterred, the Taxpayers Association is evaluating what grounds exist for residents to get out from under UTOPIA's lien, and seek relief in the courts.

At this point, it is increasingly clear that the Brigham City Council failed to uphold residents' statutory and constitutional rights. In addition, the response to the Taxpayers Association's mailer makes a powerful case that UTOPIA used misleading statements to persuade residents to sign up for the lien. No court can uphold a contract based on misleading statements.

Van Tassell is vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

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