Tribune Editorial: Salt Lake City still too secretive about homeless shelter site search

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski speaks to an overflow crowd and the Sugar House Community Council at the Sprague Library in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. The meeting hosted city officials who addressed the proposed shelter at 653 E. Simpson Ave. that Biskupski said Tuesday could conceivably be "rethought," even if the city hasn’t changed its mind.

Then came the decision of where those shelters would go. Again, city officials hid themselves behind closed doors. Neighborhoods at issue were outraged the process was so shrouded in secrecy. Why wouldn’t they disclose possible sites? And where were the community meetings about those sites, as the Utah Prison Relocation Commission had done?

Transparency is essential in a process that has been so filled with controversy. The public needs to know the who, what, when, where and why of these decisions.

Yet Biskupski’s chief of staff, Patrick Leary, denied releasing records of minutes and recordings from meetings held by city leaders to choose shelter sites. Leary’s explanations are thin.

"First, the city may still seek to acquire one or more of the parcels discussed for other purposes, and its negotiating position should not be compromised by making recordings public," Leary’s denial read. "Second, the public interest is not matched or outweighed by the necessity of allowing governmental entities to seek confidential advice from attorneys."

On the first point, the city overpaid for the properties it bought, one by at least $2 million and perhaps over $5 million. So maybe they need some fresh eyes on their financial decisions. That transaction was canceled, with a loss of $10,000 in earnest money. All that is an argument for an open process, not an invitation to repeat a closed one.

On the second point, GRAMA requires something more than the vague assertion of attorney-client privilege. Besides, even if city attorneys were present in these meetings, if any other county or state representatives or outside consultants were present, attorney-client privilege would be waived.

But when Sugar House neighborhood activist George Chapman appealed the city’s ruling to the State Records Committee, that panel found itself going in circles trying to follow a state law that seems to allow the city to keep secret records that were created in secret meetings. That’s too big a loophole, and the law should be changed.

Biskupski ran on a platform of increased government transparency. The city’s process on homeless shelters has been weak, and a full public accounting of it would be good government. Especially since the process is not over.

As Biskupski said herself, "Insider, backroom deals like this undermine people’s confidence in their government."