November 25th, 2013

 This article first ran in the Standard Examiner on November 24th. 

Certain inaccurate charges have recently been leveled in media accounts regarding member cities of UTOPIA, their leadership, and compliance with GRAMA and open meetings law that must not be left unanswered.

It is true that we held a series of confidential discussions with member-city officials who willingly signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). It is not true that we violated Utah law in any way. GRAMA and the Open Meetings Act (OPA) both make specific provision for NDA in just such cases. Such agreements are not only allowed in the law, they are within both its letter and spirit. Any notion implied or stated that something illegal or unethical has occurred is absolutely false. If some action based on those talks is considered in the future, the process will be fully noticed and open to everyone.

Our discussions centered on the potential restructuring of the UTOPIA partnership along the lines of Google/Provo city, which could potentially bring huge benefits to our member cities. We understand why some might feel offended by such agreements; we certainly avoid them in general.

But if critics will take the time to fully consider the circumstances, we believe they will understand that confidentiality at this very early stage is necessary for exploring such options.

Private entities generally demand confidential negotiations when discussing potential agreements with public entities. It is standard practice at virtually all levels of economic development, including Utah’s Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). Without confidentiality, many negotiations would simply cease. We need look no further than Proctor & Gamble’s development in Box Elder County or Google’s deal with Provo; neither would have happened without some level of confidentiality up front. Private companies are seldom willing to have their business strategies published on the front page prematurely.

Discussion at this point is only exploration and sharing between cities; no decisions are in the works. Nor was any city compelled to participate under the NDA. Officials from each of the eleven cities were free to decline information about a potential private partnership. Even with what we think could be very promising developments on the horizon, we had no desire to compel or coerce anyone to participate.

Sadly, inaccurate assertions in the media drown out good news about UTOPIA. This newspaper just recently noted a 70 percent rate decrease on basic service for most network customers. (How often do we see a rate decrease on our other utility-type bills?) Layton city has begun the process of providing free, fast Wi-fi to its parks and public facilities for everyone to use. Another unreported fact is that network operations are moving steadily toward the black, and UTOPIA has met or exceeded its revenue targets for the past three years. It would be easy to miss these positive developments in light of some recent media accounts.

We understand that we have a long way to go to win the public’s trust. The earlier years of UTOPIA were marked by over projection and under performance. The network has been plagued by excessive debt, incomplete build out, and therefore, insufficient subscriber rates and revenues. New leadership in the past few years has begun to turn the ship, slowly but surely. Another reason to keep a low profile on preliminary deliberations over potential partnerships is our desire to avoid any more unmet expectations.

We are working hard to earn back the trust of our current partners, providers, customers and residents and show that UTOPIA can indeed fulfill its early promise in a fiscally sustainable manner.

Wayne Pyle is the city manager and CEO of West Valley City, Utah’s second-largest municipality. He currently serves as chairman of UTOPIA (Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency.)