This week, Rep. Mike Schultz and Sen. Wayne Harper, the sponsors of the SB136 bill that increased transit taxes, changed UTA governance and changed the UTA name, held a press conference. They said that they were going to stop the UTA name change.
They used statements that indicated their frustration with the backlash from the public about the name change. They said that they felt that the $50 million cost to change the UTA name was “incorrect” and that it was a diversion from the recent termination of UTA General Manager Jerry Benson with 9 months severance pay.
They felt that UTA was stonewalling the name change. But UTA, after SB136, was not able to spend more than $200,000 without special approval, above the budget, until the new commissioners are appointed to manage UTA. Schultz and Harper were putting a lot of pressure on UTA staff to quickly change the name despite many, including the governor, who felt the name change was “silly”.
Schultz said that he felt that the UTA actions regarding Benson were “criminal”. He cited a letter from the Utah Attorney General’s Office that said that the termination should have been noticed at least a day ahead of time instead of just notifying about a closed meeting on personnel. Ironically, a few days later, the Sandy Police Chief was terminated without notice or public hearing and the attorney general did not express concern about that.
When Benson took the general manager’s job, with reluctance, he agreed to decrease his severance compensation, if terminated, from 18 months to nine months. Jerry’s reluctance was due to the constant political pressure for more projects. Jerry was an operations expert and UTA benefited from his time as general manager.
I fought SB136 and felt, among other issues, that it would result in many managers with institutional knowledge leaving UTA. I was not surprised at the public notice the day before the closed session that said there would be a closed session regarding personnel matters and I assumed that UTA would be losing someone important.
Watching UTA and attending its board meetings over the years, I felt that the Legislature had more influence and control of UTA than UTA staff. Members of the Legislature supported transit oriented developments and the much-criticized trip to Switzerland by some staff and board members. Legislators wanted more projects, and SB136 will provide many new transit projects. Legislative leaders, including Speaker Greg Hughes, were often on the UTA Board of Trustees and provided significant direction to UTA staff.
The disturbing claims that UTA actions were “criminal” and that they broke the law are a surprise coming from Schultz and Harper. I know these legislators and have worked with them (and fought some of their efforts) for many years. I consider them both to be committed public servants. Harper sponsored one of the best bills last session that would have decreased onerous towing traps in parking lots (it ran out of time in the session). He has always been respectful to me during our arguments. I watched Schultz spend 30 minutes, listening to workers interested in one of his bills and trying to find an acceptable path forward.
Schultz and Harper should not be claiming misdirection about the UTA name change and should not be using terms like “criminal” or “breaking the law.” UTA did not try to misdirect anyone on the issue. I watched and listened to UTA continually try to follow their orders to act.
I do not believe that termination of a valuable employee requires a public notice. Then Mayor Ralph Becker terminated Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank without notice. It should be obvious that the law wasn’t broken.
I believe that it makes more sense for everyone, including these two legislators, to focus on appropriately implementing SB136 rather than blaming UTA or claiming that someone broke the law. We need to work together and not blame those we have to work with. The UTA name change issue did not deserve mudslinging.
George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of SLC and writes a blog at georgechapman.net.