Wednesday , February 21, 2018 - 5:00 AM1 comment
SALT LAKE CITY — More than two years after completion of a flood-mitigation project along the Weber River — at the seeming heart of a police probe into Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson — the official is insistent: The improvements are working.
He points to the lack of problems along the waterway last year despite heavy snowmelt that caused serious flooding in Box Elder County and elsewhere, reminiscent of flooding along the Weber River in 2011.
“We were able to move water along that river, divert it to where it was appropriate and get it to the Great Salt Lake where we needed it to be during that runoff period. It was just a tremendous success. I couldn’t be more proud,” Gibson said.
More germane, perhaps, in light of the ongoing Ogden Police Department inquiry focused on Gibson, the county official maintains that the Weber River project in western Weber County was completed following proper protocol. “To the extent he had any involvement in it, it was totally aboveboard, totally ethical,” his lawyer, Peter Stirba said.
As the police probe into Gibson continues, the county commissioner and his backers are getting antsy, wondering why the inquiry — which came to public light on Dec. 13 — hasn’t yet concluded. He has done no wrong, Gibson reiterated, and he gathered with Stirba and two backers, Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney and Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, to defend himself. The officials also took the opportunity to bemoan the repercussions elected officials can face when charged seemingly out of the blue.
“They could do that to me and Commissioner Pollock and guess what — we’re under investigation. To me that is wrong,” Whitney said, gathered with Gibson, Stirba and Pollock at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City. “We should not have these targets on our back where people can maliciously ... come after us on a daily basis.”
Gibson isn’t 100 percent sure what’s behind the Ogden police inquiry, nor is he certain how it got on law enforcement officials’ radar screen in the first place. But he’s told Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Michael Styler that he suspects the focus is the Weber River project, Styler says. And Gibson and his defenders zeroed in on the flood-prevention initiative in the Weber River watershed in a meeting with the Standard-Examiner in Salt Lake City, defending his involvement and the project’s outcome.
Gibson was slated to take a job as deputy DNR director when news of the police investigation emerged last December, prompting him to put plans to take the new post on hold pending its completion.
Stirba, for his part, provided the Standard-Examiner with written declarations he collected as part of Gibson’s defense from two Weber County employees, County Engineer Jared Anderson and Weber County Emergency Management Director Lance Peterson. Both, as county employees, were heavily involved in day-to-day management of the $26.4 million Weber County initiative, launched in response to heavy flooding along the Weber River in 2011 and completed in 2015.
Both defended the integrity of the project, about three-quarters of it funded by the feds, and Gibson’s involvement in it.
“I know of no instance where any work was done that was not necessary,” Peterson said in his declaration. Because a dairy farm owned by Gibson and his family abuts some Weber River sections that received attention — the root of suspicions about Gibson’s involvement, Styler said — the county commissioner minimized his direct involvement.
Gibson voiced reservations about his involvement in the project in light of the proximity of his land “more than once, and I know of no decision that he was involved in concerning any work that was done on the section of river that went through the Gibson property,” Peterson said.
Police have said they launched the investigation in response to a request by Weber County government officials, but haven’t provided additional details. Lt. Danielle Croyle said Monday that the police effort continues.
“All the time I’ve known him, all the time that he was in charge of 29 counties, he has done no wrong,” said Pollock, alluding to Gibson’s tenure leading the UAC. “Nobody has said a word about him and now out of the blue something comes down like this? I know it’s politically motivated.”
Indeed, elected county leaders, Whitney and Pollock said, are frequent targets of naysayers when a big infrastructure project takes shape.
“In all counties, yes, we face that,” said Whitney, a member of the UAC executive committee. “Anytime you’re doing an improvement project, someone tries to turn it around and say, ‘Oh, that must be self-serving for someone, a friend, a family, himself.’ That’s what happens. And that is what has happened here.”
Gibson worries that differences that used to be debated and settled in the political realm, the apt arena, are now increasingly getting shunted to courts, not always the proper place. That has a chilling effect on the ability of elected officials to do their job.
As for the Weber River flood-mitigation project, Stirba pointed to heavy involvement of federal authorities in the project — the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. That would serve to check the possibilty of improper management.
“Once an NRCS project starts, they take it over,” Pollock said. “It’s not like you run the project. NRCS does. They oversee a project. They make the decisions.”
Beyond that, Stirba said Gibson was careful to give county employees and others with expertise, like Andersen and Peterson, the space they needed to make decisions, particularly since the river runs through his property. Work entailed debris removal, bank stabilization, upgrades to the Little Weber River Cutoff Channel and more, all aimed at better moving water in the watershed to the Great Salt Lake.
“I was never asked for any special favors, special treatment or anything else of any kind that could be considered of special benefit unique to the Gibsons,” Peterson, the emergency management official, said in his declaration. Bank stabilization efforts on Weber River sections by the Gibson property and elsewhere conformed with “previously approved plans that were identified before the work ever started as reasonable and necessary.”
Andersen, in his declaration, said debris hadn’t been cleared from the Weber River in western Weber County for more than 50 years, giving rise to increased flooding and the need for the project. He knows of no special consideration given to Gibson and said neither Gibson nor any family members sought special treatment.
“Myself and all of the other engineers and contractors who worked on the project were aware that portions of the river ran directly adjacent to a farming and dairy operation owned by the Gibson family,” Andersen said. “I know for a fact that there was no favorable treatment given to that portion of the river to bestow some benefit on the Gibson family different than any other property owner that had the river abutting their property.”
Now, as the inquiry continues, Gibson waits. He still wants to take the DNR post, but if he were to run for office again, completion of the Weber River flood-mitigation project would make worthy campaign trail material as a notable achievement.
“This whole river project started because my county was underwater and my citizens were in trouble,” Gibson said. “And I was not willing to sit back and pass the buck.”
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