Cynicism, that hardiest of weeds on the soul, requires only an example or two to take root, and then it feeds well on mere suspicions.
And right now, some members of the new board overseeing the Utah Inland Port Authority, including outgoing House Speaker Greg Hughes, are, to put it delicately, weed food.
The board was supposed to hold its first public meeting Monday, but everything fell apart rather
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quickly because some board members had yet to fill out conflict-of-interest disclosures. One of these was Hughes, a developer in his day job, who said the language was too ambiguous.
“You want to be careful not to subscribe, under penalty of perjury, with language that I think right now … there could be legal interpretations in different ways,” he told the Deseret News.
I’ve been around long enough to know you don’t need many attorneys in a room to get several interpretations on just about anything. But the court of public opinion is not so, to borrow the same word, ambiguous.
And if I’ve learned anything over more than 30 years of writing for a newspaper, it is that people are quick to be suspicious of the motives of politicians. It’s not an irrational fear.
Through the years, I’ve been acquainted with a few politicians who seemed pure enough on the outside, but who were secretly finding ways to ingratiate themselves through public service.
A few, not many; I still believe most politicians have honorable desires to serve the public. I count that as one of the pleasant realities I have discovered.
But even for these, the mere perception of corruption can be devastating.
No wonder one of the most common reader comments I receive concerns worries that some developer in the Legislature is looking to profit from a public project.
“What a sweetheart deal for a few developers and their political allies in the legislature and in Draper city government,” said one after I wrote about the ultimately successful effort to move the state prison out of Draper. He or she had nothing specific to back those suspicions, but perception and reality are close cousins in politics.
That’s why I applauded the state for setting up strict conflict-of-interest rules for a board it established to oversee the future of the prison site. Anyone who owns property within 5 miles of it, other than a residence, or who has a relative with property within a half-mile of it, would be banned from holding a board position.
That sounds straightforward to me; No ambiguity there.
But now that much the same language has been applied to the port authority board, it has become suddenly ambiguous.
I know what many regular folks out there believe. It goes something like this:
Either you own property within 5 miles of the inland port’s jurisdiction or you don’t. Either you have a family member who owns interest in property within a half mile of the port’s jurisdiction, or you don’t.
Either you or a family member owns interest in, or is employed by or affiliated with, a company that will profit from the authority, or you don’t.
And if you do? Well, the wording wasn’t too ambiguous for Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George. The Senate president appointed him to the board, but he resigned because he owns land within 5 miles of the authority’s boundaries.
You don’t need to be a political scientist to understand that political cynicism is a factor in low voter turnout and a general distrust of government. But if you were, you’d know several studies have been done on the subject. One, from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, found a definite correlation between low voter turnout and a perception of corruption.
In other words, the mere perception is bad for democracy.
Why else is this important? Because if it succeeds, the port authority will be around for a long time, and its importance to the local economy will grow. The public must have complete trust in it. Not only this board, but also future boards will need to be above reproach.
Hughes told the Deseret News he and others might have conflicts, the way the law that established the board is written. For the good of everyone, he ought to explain that with a little less ambiguity.