This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah's part-time Legislature has always been in the cross-hairs of critics who see conflicts of interest when lawmakers sponsor or support bills that benefit their own businesses or professions.
But that criticism has sharpened in recent months over legislators who have cashed in, either as builders or finance managers, on the exploding phenomenon of charter schools - an industry greased by legislation proffered by the very lawmakers making money from it.
A Salt Lake Tribune investigation by reporter Rebecca Walsh published last October examined the role of Reps. Jim Ferrin and Mike Morley, and former Rep. Glenn Way - all Republicans from Utah County - in the growth of charter schools in Utah. Way and Morley build the schools and Ferrin is the financier.
Ferrin has sponsored a number of bills making it easier for charter school developers to be exempted from certain zoning laws and other local restrictions, often to the dismay of suburban residents who suddenly see a school proposed for their sleepy neighborhoods that will dramatically increase traffic.
Students of charter schools, after all, rarely live in the same neighborhood as the schools and are driven to the locations by their parents.
That already makes Ferrin a target of angry residents who discover that, because of his legislation, they have little say in a development that could dramatically change the dynamics of their neighborhood. But the bull's-eye sharpened for some Alpine residents after they had a meeting with Ferrin early this month over the proposed Mountainville Academy.
Many residents around Alpine's Healey Boulevard are opposed to the charter school because they say its 675 students will be driven by car from outside the area in the morning and picked up by car in the afternoon and there are 96 children who live on or around Healey Boulevard who would be put in jeopardy by the increased traffic.
At the May 1 meeting, according to a statement sent to the Alpine City Council that was signed by 25 residents of the Healey Boulevard neighborhood, Ferrin was asked what it would take to locate the school in a different area.
Ferrin, according to the signed statement, then responded that he would need to be made whole on a $100,000 non-refundable deposit he already made to purchase property for the school. Then, according to the statement, he added: "Also, it would have to be worthwhile, $500,000 or so."
Later in the meeting, the statement said, Ferrin was describing the cinderblock exterior finish of the proposed building and said: "If you would like to upgrade the appearance of the building to stucco or stone, I would be happy to accept your contributions."
Ferrin, in his own follow-up statement to the City Council, said those statements were taken out of context of a two-hour meeting, that they were made in response to specific prompting from some residents, both at that meeting and in a prior, private meeting.
"I believe the two excerpted statements are intended, in the short memo, to create a message or impression that is patently false," Ferrin wrote.
Ferrin said he was summoned to the home of one resident who described himself as an ambassador for the neighborhood and it was that resident who raised the question of financial consideration. The resident said the neighbors would be willing to make contributions to the school to facilitate a decision to change sites and suggested a sum of $100,000 to refund the earnest money Ferrin and his partners had already paid. Ferrin said he didn't think that would entice the partners because it is a $7 million project and $100,000 would be insufficient to alter what they considered a good site.
After the resident asked what else it would take, Ferrin said if someone wanted to purchase an alternative site and offer it to the school, "that would certainly make us move to another site."
Knowing a proposed site in nearby Highland would cost $1.5 million, Ferrin says he felt confident that was unrealistic, so if the community raised $500,000 as a gift to the school, that would pay a significant portion of the alternate site and make it easier for the developers to move the school there.
All that was repeated at the neighborhood meeting, and just a couple of damning statements were lifted from Ferrin's comments and sent to the council, the legislator said.
Ferrin also pointed out that he made clear the gift would be to the school, not him, and he actually would make less on the eventual lease payments because the mortgage would be lower with such a huge down payment.
The resentment now is clear: The residents feel Ferrin's legislation has made them helpless in preventing a neighborhood-altering development that benefits Ferrin. Ferrin thinks the neighbors deliberately set him up and mischaracterized his statements in a disingenuous attempt to discredit him.
And the Legislature's integrity remains under heavy suspicion.