Summit County agrees to settlement in Mountain Accord lawsuit
Summit County and Park City, along with the other cities and counties involved in the now-defunct Mountain Accord, recently agreed to pay $11,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by landowners in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
The suit, filed in 2016, asserted that the Mountain Accord violated open meetings laws by excluding the public from executive committee meetings, failing to give proper notice and neglecting to record audio or minutes from those meetings.
Cardiff Canyons Owners Association and an individual named Norm Henderson filed the lawsuit. The lawsuit requested a judgment ordering the Mountain Accord to comply with open meetings laws and provide proper notice of hearings and minutes from the meetings. Mountain Accord participants had claimed the group was not subject to open meetings laws because it was not a government entity.
Last week, Judge Laura Scott dismissed the case after the parties reached a settlement. The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can never be refiled. Earlier in the proceedings, Scott ruled open meetings laws did apply to Mountain Accord. But, she never stated that Mountain Accord had violated them.
As part of the settlement agreement, the defendants agreed to pay $11,000 to Cardiff Canyons Owners Association and Henderson to cover the fees and costs associated with the suit.
Dave Thomas, Summit County’s chief civil deputy attorney, said the county agreed to the settlement because the costs of litigation would have been “far more than that.” He estimated it could have cost nearly $100,000 to fight the allegations in the suit.
“The parties did not admit to any liability because they believe they didn’t have any liability,” he said. “We wanted to look after the best interest and the pocketbook of the taxpayers.”
Summit County Councilor Chris Robinson sat on the executive committee of the Mountain Accord and was involved with the program from the beginning. He said the executive committee was counseled that the Mountain Accord wasn’t required to follow open meetings laws. He added, “We had all kinds of outreach. It was a very public process.” He said the meetings were “very well publicized and very well attended by many stakeholders, including the plaintiff.”
Robinson further stated that no decision came out of the Mountain Accord and that a request from the plaintiff to rescind the work that was done was unnecessary. He said the Accord was a collection of governments and citizens who gathered to come up with goals for the region.
“It’s not like the document, the Accord, had any binding authority to do anything,” he said. “It stated our shared goals that we wanted to pursue. But, the plaintiff says those are the wrong goals and you came up with them improperly.
“Either way, the issue is dead,” he added.
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.
The Mountain Accord process was beset with controversy from the onset, namely because of proposals to construct a transportation tunnel connecting the Wasatch Back and Salt Lake Valley and consideration of a gondola linking resorts along the Wasatch Back and Front. However, many community members supported the program’s intent to secure federal land designations in the central Wasatch Mountains.
The program ended following the signing of the Accord, which identified several goals for the central Wasatch Mountains.
In 2017, Utah State Auditor John Dougall released a report that determined there was a lack of transparency regarding the Mountain Accord’s expenditures while it was active. The report showed it led to limited public oversight and confusion. Dougall went on to state in his report that he felt the Mountain Accord was subject to open meetings laws.
The Mountain Accord eventually transformed into the Central Wasatch Commission, which was created to implement the ideas and goals set forth in the program.
Robinson and Park City Mayor Andy Beerman represent the Wasatch Back on the commission board along with other elected leaders from Salt Lake County. The Summit County Council is soon expected to determine whether the county should continue to contribute financially to the commission to maintain a seat at the table.
Henderson said his experience with the Mountain Accord and what he deemed a flawed process now has him questioning the merits of the Central Wasatch Commission.
“It’s a continuation of the obfuscation and shell game they are trying to do to manipulate the public process so they can get what they want,” he said. “The CWC continues to do it. Now they are doing it in adherence to (open meetings laws), I admit that. But, they are still manipulating the public process
Henderson said the purpose of the suit was to prove that the Mountain Accord process was not legitimate and that the ideas that came out of the program should be questioned.
“If it wasn’t done through a proper process, how can you rely on the recommendations that come out of it?” he said. “We reached the settlement because we didn’t know if we would have gotten to a judgment. All that would have done was reiterated our point that Mountain Accord was subject to (open meetings laws).”
Meredith Reed was elected to a two-year term as chair of the Summit County Democratic Party and said she sees an opportunity to ride the so-called blue wave that saw a Democratic surge nationally and within the state.