Utah Inland Port Authority has moved away from ‘sketchy crap,’ new director says

Ben Hart, on Oct. 26, 2016. Hart, who took over as the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority last year, said Thursday that work is being done to improve the authority’s business structure. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Ben Hart admits he was surprised by how the Utah Inland Port Authority was run before he was tapped to be the agency’s new executive director last year.

By the point he took over, details of an audit of the inland port’s operating arm were starting to emerge, highlighting major concerns about the port authority.

“We needed a significant change at the port,” Hart told members of the Utah Legislature’s Business, Economic Development and Labor Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday morning. “I appreciate the fact that (state auditors) have given us a little bit of time to get this house in order because it really needed to happen. … There was some super sketchy crap going on at the inland port.”

While he told lawmakers that changes are already in motion, Hart added, there is also some “somewhat self-imposed” legislation expected to be compiled during the legislative session that will put new “reins” on the port authority going forward. While a bill has yet to be submitted for consideration, he said the inland port will support the measures.

Shaking up the business model

The audit Hart referenced began in May, after a new inland port board was sworn in. Though the state legislature created the port authority in 2018, the organization had just started to “ramp up” hiring and planning projects, state audit manager Brian Dean explained to members of the subcommittee Thursday.

The state published its report in September. It found that the agency was making financial commitments “without adequate planning, gaps in organizational structure that reduce internal controls and the need for stronger and contract management,” which auditors said procurement was a concern.

An added concern was that Utah Inland Port Authority President Jack Hedge had been given “sole discretion” to make contracting decisions “unilaterally,” resulting in sole-source contracts accounting for 80% of all inland port contracts. This included a deal with a vendor started by one of Hedge’s former co-workers, which auditors said was a red flag.

In turn, the port authority’s original board members weren’t provided with key details of some contracts, or even that some deals had been made, altogether.

“What we found — the risk here — is a lot of things were done in the dark,” said Zack King, with the Utah legislative auditor general’s staff, summarizing the report to the subcommittee. “The oversight function was lacking. … The board was not leading the ship when it came to the inland port’s operations.”

Hedge resigned from his post last year, announcing his departure before the audit findings were released.

I feel like we’ve made a really significant pivot and we’re trying to get it right.

–Ben Hart, executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority

Auditors also recommended that all inland port projects be put on hold until a master plan was completed, which Hart agreed to. The state also came up with a list of 27 “best practices” for the port authority to consider, Dean pointed out.

Hart said most of the auditor’s recommendations have since been implemented or are in the process of being implemented, including major internal policy changes. For example, he said port authority leaders agreed to either terminate most of its contracts or let them expire, so they can go back and make agreements with vendors through a better agreement process.

The port authority board also approved a new master plan last month; however, it’s unclear when those projects will resume.

“I feel like we’ve made a really significant pivot and we’re trying to get it right,” Hart said, later explaining that the shakeups allowed for a better understanding of what the inland port can and should be.

Moving forward to 2023

The state audit team plans to follow up with the port authority later this year to ensure new leadership has improved its operating structure. If better practices aren’t implemented, there will be reviews in future years to check in on any progress made. These findings will be brought back to lawmakers, to keep them aware of what’s happening.

New legislation may also help improve the port authority’s operations. Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said the subcommittee would also like to follow up with port authority leaders on their progress later this year.

Meanwhile, the path forward is already underway.

Box Elder County commissioners adopted a resolution Wednesday to create an inland port project area for a rail loading facility. Their vote came two days after Iron County commissioners adopted a similar resolution as a part of the Commerce Crossroads Logistics Park in southern Utah.

The heart of the inland port will remain in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant; however, the resolutions open the door for further expansion in the state, Hart said. He contends the expansion will allow for rural markets in the state to “connect” with the global market.

“If 2022 was a year of change — maybe a little pain, maybe a lot of pain — we hope that 2023 is a time to act,” Hart said. “And it’s a time to implement and it’s a time to move forward with a new business model and business plan.”

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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