On the UTOPIA Lawsuits and City Responsibility

I’ve been delaying writing more about this because I’ve been in the process of talking to people and gathering more information about the legal fight between Chris Hogan and UTOPIA. If you’d like to review the source material yourself, check out both UTOPIA’s filing and Hogan’s filing for yourself. Personally, it looks like a lot of “he said, she said” material. Hogan’s complaint centers around nepotism and violation of state bidding processes while UTOPIA has fired back to say that Hogan made a power play for the Executive Director’s chair using blackmail. Yeah, it’s all pretty nasty stuff, and it’s affecting people I like on both sides.

I think some of this may be a clash of management style. I’ve watched Todd Marriott operate and he’s what I would call a “vision guy”. Other “vision guys” are folks like Murray Mayor Dan Snarr and Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan. I think the world of Mayor Snarr, but Mayor Dolan I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, and it comes down to the way they execute on their vision. Snarr’s approach has always been to sell you on the vision whereas Dolan focuses on making the vision happen whether you wanted to be along for the ride or not. I think Marriott can oscillate between those approaches sometimes, and that may not sit well.

Marriott also fits into what I’d call an “action guy”, someone who wants to get things done and knows just how he wants to do it. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but being a government entity, there’s a complex web of rules that have to be followed with darn near every action. I’m sure that UTOPIA’s counsel is good at finding ways to accomplish these goals within the framework of state law, but I’m also certain that it ends up in unfamiliar territory and pushes the boundaries, things that have often gotten local governments in hot water with the Legislature (like Salt Lake County and the now-infamous police fee). Creativity in government, rather than being rewarded, often gets punished and can appear to be flagrant rule-breaking.

I’ve heard and read a lot of negative things flying back-and-forth and at the very least, the acrimony that has built up is some cause for concern. It would also be concerning if even a fraction of the allegations by either party is true. In all of this, I have to ask what the board is doing to avoid and circumvent these issues in the future. They certainly can’t micro-manage the people they select to captain the ship, but they absolutely need to stay on top of what’s happening and guard the public trust. I’m glad that the board has been more involved in recent years than at the beginning, but I still don’t feel as if the cities are properly invested in UTOPIA and its success.

On the surface, I can understand why. UTOPIA has spent a lot of money without much to show for it so far. (Seriously, $200M+ for <10K subscribers is not the best return on investment.) If I were in an elected position, it would be very tempting to keep things limping along until I can pass the buck to the next guy, especially if I don’t really understand the telecom market or the underlying technology. This, however, really needs to end. The cities need to be fully invested in more than just their pocketbooks. If there isn’t someone in city government, elected or appointed, who can really understand the project and help guide it, the cities should put out a call to find someone who is that they can appoint to the board.

Right now, I’m taking a “wait and see” approach. The UIA plan is good, I just worry about the execution after Brigham City took so much longer than expected to get moving. If it succeeds and UTOPIA’s finances see a drastic improvement, then whatever Marriott and his team are doing is probably going to be okay with me.  If it flops out or fizzles and we have another case of missed deadlines, it’s time for increased scrutiny. The project and its goals are more important to me than any individual involved in it, and it should be that way for all of us who support open-access networks.

I’m going to start doing my part by making an effort to be at UTOPIA’s monthly board meetings to keep an eye on things. The next one is Monday May 9th at 9:30AM in UTOPIA’s offices at Redwood and the 21st S Freeway. I hope that some of you other private citizens will do your part as well.

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