Editorial: Parking garage battle threatens Moab City Council’s ability to govern

The proposed downtown parking structure has proved to be the Moab City Council’s Trojan horse. The raw emotions involved in Tuesday’s nightmarish meeting that went deep into the night with no action taken were uncomfortable to witness on a number of fronts, none so painful as watching Council Members Kalen Jones and Karen Newton-Guzman trade personal insults.

Moab City Council members Karen Guzman-Newton and Kalen Jones engage in a heated exchange at Tuesday's meeting. Photo by Doug McMurdo
Moab City Council members Karen Guzman-Newton and Kalen Jones engage in a heated exchange at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Doug McMurdo

The argument went on for several moments, leading one audience member to say, and this is a paraphrase, “I hate it when Mom and Dad fight.”

The brouhaha was over opposing resolutions regarding the planned parking garage with this theme: Should the city abandon plans for the $8 million project on West Center and 100 West? Should the city instead use that hotspot funding for a transit system? Or should the city instead use that funding for dispersed parking projects and maybe a transit system?

There was a wholesale rewrite of one proposed resolution, which seemed to borrow a lot from the other proposed resolution — neither of which was written by one of the city’s three attorneys on staff. Resolutions are not as serious as ordinances, but they do spell out policy and they can be used to draw a metaphorical line in the sand. Jones and Council Member Mike Duncan wrote the dueling drafts and their colleagues were asked to pick the best. Policymaking with Play-doh.

Attorneys should be the people writing all of those whereases and therefores. It’s serious business.

There were angry business owners who were adamantly opposed to the parking structure, but the Chamber of Commerce said 62% of members who responded to a survey supported the garage. It turns out it was 62% of 24 businesses, a disclosure that led to the poor chamber representative being shouted down by a few members of the audience. She was just there to share information. The chamber has wisely avoided taking a stand.

Meanwhile, organizers of the newly formed Downtown Main Street Alliance say about 75% of downtown businesses oppose the parking garage — more than 40 businesses on and off Main Street.

Beneath all of this rancor is a serious allegation that claims the city’s mayor has not been transparent and has made decisions to approve the parking garage without any public input, and that the structure is all to benefit businesses owned by Mike Bynum and his associate investors. Bynum is one of Moab’s most successful and in some cases disliked business owners.

Hotspot funds are so-called because they were a one-time grant of sorts for Utah communities hit hard by the impacts of a robust tourism economy. Moab has certainly been hit hard, and now, with the imminent widening of Highway 191 taking away on-street parking from 400 North to the Colorado River, those businesses that will be affected and that depend on tourism are about to get hit with a hard impact of their own.

While Mayor Emily Niehaus has taken the brunt of criticism for the alleged lack of transparency, along with Council Member Jones, it’s important to remember how all this went down.

On May 11, 2018, the Utah Department of Transportation awarded Moab $10 million specifically for a parking structure, dispersed parking and Main Street improvements.

The money was part of a $100 million pot in “recreational hotspot funding” the Utah Legislature approved the year before.

UDOT didn’t just knock on Moab’s front door and hand over $10 million. There was competition for all that free money and the man who was given credit for putting together a committee of city and county officials was Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells, who “pointed us in the right direction right out of the gates here about a year ago,” said former City Manager David Everitt at that May 11, 2018 meeting.

At the time, a rightfully proud Wells said the projects, including the parking garage, would make Moab a “safer place a live, a quieter place to live.”

The point is, the city and the county had to draft a proposal and apply for the funding. There were no back-room deals. No palms were greased. This effort was outside the normal course of business. When Santa shows up with a bag full of money, you don’t ask too many questions.

And now, the city council after allowing itself to be riled up to the point of losing its collective composure, the infighting puts at risk not only the 10 million free dollars, it could find itself $299,000 in debt to the firm doing the design work on the parking structure — which has been under a “stop work” order from the city for the past three weeks after the future of the garage became a point of deep contention.

Members of the Moab City Council were elected to represent the 5,000 residents of Moab, but the task before them is monumental because in actuality they represent a couple million people who require services. The county is in the same boat.

Their jobs are difficult enough without anger and other negative emotions dictating the conversation. Residents deserve sober deliberations and professional demeanor from their representatives. Perhaps someone should draft a resolution.

A final thought: $300,000 to draw a parking structure is ludicrous and the work isn’t even complete. Who’s the architect? The ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright? We’re talking about concrete and steel, yellow paint and a crossing bar if we decide to charge people.

No wonder governments are always broke.