State review of Mountain Accord program reveals lack of transparency
Auditor determines process created confusion among participants
September 17, 2017
Utah State Auditor John Dougall's recent review of the now defunct Mountain Accord program revealed the program showed a lack of transparency regarding expenditures, which created confusion among participants and led to limited public oversight.
The Mountain Accord was created in 2012 as a collaborative effort to create a cohesive plan for the central Wasatch Mountains to address growth and development issues related to the environment, transportation, the economy and recreation. Park City Municipal and Summit County were among the program's members, contributing $200,000 and $100,000, respectively.
More than a year ago, Dougall's office received an inquiry regarding the Accord's expenditures, among other concerns, because they weren't being reported to his office or on the Utah Public Finance website.
In April, his office received more inquiries from Utah State Rep. Kim Coleman (R-West Jordan) and Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan). Coleman and Ivory sent a letter to Dougall's office requesting an audit to determine whether the program violated open meetings laws, money was spent appropriately and whether the Accord complied with the intent of the Utah Legislature. Coleman and Ivory's letter was followed by a similar request from the Salt Lake County Council in August.
Dougall did find that the Mountain Accord – which has transformed into the Central Wasatch Commission – did appropriately spend approximately $7.5 million for environmental and transportation consultants, among other expenses, and opened competitive bid processes to reduce any conflicts of interest.
"I am pleased that Auditor Dougall found that Mountain Accord followed proper contracting procedures and satisfactorily monitored progress on objectives established under the contract. He also concluded that the state funds were used in accordance with the legislature's intent and that payments were reasonable and customary," according to statement from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, former chair of the Mountain Accord executive committee.
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Andy Beerman, who is a Park City councilor and former member of the Accord executive committee, said he is "really happy the audit confirmed we were appropriate with the program's funds."
"The Mountain Accord was one of the most public processes that I had ever been involved in. We involved hundreds of stakeholders and took feedback from thousands of people," Beerman said. "We tried to approach the whole thing as a public process. We are currently forming the Central Wasatch Commission to address the structural weaknesses of the Accord and as a commission under state law we will be able to comply with the Open and Public Meetings Act.
"I'm pleased that the audit came back positive and found were following all practices because it was a complex process," he said.
However, a lawsuit is currently pending in the Third Judicial District Court seeking judgement against Mountain Accord for violations of Open and Public Meetings Act (OPMA) leaving the group's transparency unknown. Proponents claimed the group was not subject to OPMA because it was not a government entity.
"From our perspective, they are subject to comply with the Open and Public Meetings Act and it was nice to have a judge concur with our findings," Dougall said.
From Dougall's perspective, he said the Accord's funds were used in accordance with the Legislature's intent because of the "extremely limited intent language." He noted, however, it is up to the various members of the program to decide to what extent it met those objectives.
"One thing that we did note was that, ultimately, the Mountain Accord program appeared to be a vehicle to direct money to UTA (Utah Transit Authority) and they were acting as a steward of Mountain Accord," Dougall said. "In our perspective, they were clearly involved in the whole issuing of RFPs (Requests for Proposals) and monitoring the progress reports. Given their significant roles in the financial affairs of Mountain Accord, they should have been timelier in ensuring and reporting the expenditures."
The way the Accord was created, Dougall said, it "clearly created confusion" for the public and program participants. He added, "What we noted is that the program's governmental duties, including transparency under the law, and this lack of clarity eliminated some public oversight."
"We shine a flashlight where others can't see and provide information to the public. In some cases, we expect the governing board to take corrective action and, in some cases, we turn it over to law enforcement," Dougall said. "We didn't see something like that in this case. We reported what we saw to provide better input. There was so much confusion about where the money went. But, we didn't have recommendations per say, partly because this program is essentially gone.
"One of the key things from my perspective is it is important you provide transparency, even if people disagree they can see what is going on," he said.