A team looking to move the Draper prison, led by former Utah Senate President Al Mansell, a real estate agent, explored proposing legislation exempting the entire 670-acre parcel from the state's competitive bidding process, says a key lawmaker.
"There have been a bunch of ideas and concepts thrown around. One that brought me pause was an idea to seek a legislative solution that would exempt the area from the procurement process," said House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "I don't know how seriously that idea was pursued, but just the idea worried me."
Hughes, a proponent of moving the prison, introduced legislation this week to establish a commission to guide the relocation out of concern that Mansell and company were pushing to rush the process.
Robin Riggs, an attorney and lobbyist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce working with Mansell, said he met with Hughes after Christmas and discussed every idea and the brainstorming included legislation picking a winner.
"One idea was: Is it better to just find a group or person to do it? … It was fleeting and it certainly was not focused on," Riggs said. A week later, Riggs said he sent Hughes a text and told him, "By the way, you should know we're going through the traditional bid process."
Riggs said that's where it stands now. "We had no intention of going through anything other than a competitive bid process," he said.
Troy Walker, the Draper city councilman who has spearheaded the city's effort to move the prison, said there was little doubt that Mansell was trying to convince Gov. Gary Herbert to fast-track the prison relocation.
"It's clear to me these guys wanted this to happen as quickly as it could," Walker said. "There was no question they wanted the Governor's Office to go along."
Walker said Mansell pressed the city to write the Governor's Office to expedite the bidding process, a move Walker said he thought was meant to give Mansell's group an inside track on the deal. It made him uneasy.
"I don't think it was sinister … it was tactical," Walker said. "It needs to be the right deal for the taxpayers, not the right deal for a development group."
Mansell, a former president of the state and national realtors associations, said Friday that he did want the issue resolved quickly, but wasn't pushing for any shortcuts.
"We were looking for a fairly quick move because we didn't want interest rates to go up," Mansell said. "It's been kicked around for years. I don't think it's quick."
He said his goal was to get the governor to issue a "Request for Information" to find out who might be interested in the prison relocation so the state can determine if it is in the best interest of taxpayers and pick the best idea.
"It is critical that it get done," he said.
On Feb. 15, despite Walker's discomfort, the Draper City Council and the mayor sent a letter to the governor, urging him to issue a Request for Information (RFI) to allow interested parties to make proposals regarding the move and how to develop the property, and supported a 30- to 60-day response time.
The governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said Herbert is open to moving the prison, but if it's going to be moved "we are going to do it right, and no matter what proposals come forth, the ultimate litmus test is whether it is in the taxpayers' best interest."
She said the governor has insisted that the process be open, fair and consistent with state law. Asked specifically about a 30-day deadline on an RFI, Isom said that such a time frame "would be incompatible with the governor's commitment to a fair process."
Correspondence between the Governor's Office and Mansell's team, obtained by The Tribune through an open records request, shows that Mansell spoke about the issue directly with Herbert, a former president of the Utah Association of Realtors.
And Riggs met with John Pearce, Herbert's general counsel, to explore options.
In an e-mail to Riggs sent just before Thanksgiving, Pearce said, "I have some concerns" about some issues raised in an earlier discussion.
Pearce pointed to administrative rules and sections in state law that would require the prison relocation to go through a full competitive process open to other bidders.
"We knew there would be challenges," Riggs wrote back. "We just want to make sure no stone was left unturned before we pursue a legislative remedy."
Riggs said in an interview that "legislative remedy" may have been a poor choice of words. He said he was merely making the point that the Legislature would want to "sign off" on the relocation.
Riggs, who was general counsel for former Gov. Mike Leavitt, said he met with Pearce because he was unclear about the process and was trying to find out which part of state government would take the lead. Isom said the discussion was general in nature and Riggs didn't have a specific proposal for Pearce.
Riggs sought to have the governor sign a nondisclosure agreement, which was refused.
Later, in a handwritten note to Pearce, Michael Sibbett, the former chairman of the Board of Pardons and Parole who is also working with Mansell and Riggs, included a previous RFI that was open for just 24 days and noted that "One of the reasons the state has not found a solution is we keep studing [sic] it to death."
The request Sibbett included was for a relatively small project in 2007, studying a new location for the prison.
The e-mails also show that Leo Mantas, director of the World Links Group, which just broke ground on a new Tooele County jail, corresponded with the Governor's Office about building a new prison for several months in 2010.
Hughes, who has tried to move the prison for years, said he wants it done the right way.
On Thursday, he introduced legislation that would create a special commission the Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) made up of representatives of Draper City, Salt Lake County and the state to shepherd the prison bid process, removing it from the executive branch.
"The expedited process to make a decision to relocate the prison was part of the buzz I heard, and it really brought me concern," he said.
Hughes said he has met with Herbert about his bill and although he can't speak for the governor he said Herbert is supportive of the concept, although details still need to be resolved.
Mansell said Friday he hasn't seen the bill. Walker said Draper likes the proposal, which, as it is drafted, gives the city four members of the seven-member PRADA board. The measure, HB445, is scheduled for its first public hearing Monday.
Tom Patterson, director of the Department of Corrections, said there seems to be considerable, steady interest in moving the prison.
"Those policy decisions will be made at a different level," Patterson said. He said he would want to have input if a new prison is to be built so the staff can have access, medical care is available and transportation costs are low.
Last month, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, revived the idea of moving the prison and its roughly 4,500 inmates, an idea that first gained traction when he was chief of staff for former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
A costly plan?
The Draper prison began housing inmates in 1951. At the time it was in a remote, undeveloped spot in southern Salt Lake County. But sprawl has crept almost to the prison's front gate, making the 670 acres it sits upon prime for development.
A study completed in 2005 estimated it would cost $471 million to move the prison and that the underlying property was worth up to $93 million, meaning the state would lose $378 million on the deal. Real-estate values have generally declined in the ensuing years.