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Utah Transit Authority Board members should be elected instead of appointed by a variety of political insiders, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Johnson said Monday.
"This plan will go a long way to restore public trust," Johnson said, "or, at the very least, hold the UTA board of trustees accountable to voters."
In contrast, Gov. Gary Herbert, whom Johnson is trying to unseat, said last year that he would favor seeing more elected officials appointed to the UTA board. "I don't know that it needs to be an elected board, but maybe the people who are appointed ought to be elected officials so there is some accountability," he said in August 2014.
Johnson's proposal comes after years of UTA problems that range according to a legislative audit last year from sweetheart deals with developers to high pay and bonuses for top UTA officials and extensive executive travel.
One board member recently resigned amid controversy about a trip to Switzerland and how it was financed, and UTA has said two more members are expected to resign soon.
Controversy with UTA also was blamed for the defeat in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties (all members of UTA) of Proposition 1 to raise sales taxes for transportation, although Prop 1 did pass in the UTA counties of Davis, Weber and Tooele.
The 16-member UTA board is appointed by a wide range of entities.
One appointment each is made by the governor, House speaker and Senate president. Salt Lake City appoints one. Mayors in other cities in Salt Lake and Tooele counties jointly appoint five members. Utah County cities appoint two. Davis County cities appoint one. Cities in Weber and Box Elder counties jointly appoint one.
Unincorporated Salt Lake County also appoints one, as does the Utah Transportation Commission and cities within counties that have not entirely annexed into the UTA district.
"Utah voters not well-connected politicos and career politicians should determine who represents us as taxpayers," Johnson said.
He proposes to decrease the UTA board from 16 members to nine. He proposes electing eight members from geographic districts and having one trustee appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
He also proposed that each trustee serve one six-year term and that terms be staggered so three trustees would be replaced every two years.
Jon Cox, spokesman for Herbert, said, "Maybe [Johnson] doesn't understand that UTA isn't a state agency, nor does it receive any state funds." It is a special district, funded largely by its own sale tax approved in various elections through the years. "The governor is supportive of more accountability on the UTA board and appreciates the work of his appointee, Board Chairman H. David Burton, to bring increased transparency to the agency," Cox said.
Cox added, "The governor feels strongly that accountability is critical for those entrusted with public funds, including UTA. But at the end of the day, whether someone is elected or appointed by an elected official, there is no substitute for integrity."
Burton, the current UTA chairman, declined comment on Johnson's proposal. "This is political campaign rhetoric. And for me to comment on a politician's proposal probably isn't appropriate."
But, Burton said, "I'm sure there are going to be some differing pieces of legislation discussed or even offered this forthcoming legislative session relative to the governance issue of UTA. That can't help but be the case."
He added, "There have been in the past, and there will continue to be those that think we need a different structure."
Johnson said elections are needed to help ensure that UTA's leadership uses "taxpayer dollars wisely as taxpayers pay nearly all of UTA's infrastructure costs and upwards of 80 percent of its operating costs."
UTA records show that sales tax is projected to pay for 63.8 percent of its operating costs this year. Fares are projected to cover 14.7 percent of costs. The rest comes from revenue ranging from advertising on buses to federal grants.
UTA has a statistic that it calls "investment per rider." Essentially, that is the subsidy needed for every ride on its system beyond what is covered by fares. It estimates that to be $3.81 per ride for this year.
In recent years, the UTA board has taken several steps to try to polish its image. Some high-paid executives retired. The board lowered maximum bonuses from $30,000 a year to $7,500 and UTA executives then voluntarily gave up bonuses for two years. The board adopted more extensive ethics rules.
It required approval in a public meeting of any international travel. However, a trip in September to look at train systems in Switzerland which included two UTA board members, its former chairman (House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper) and two UTA lobbyists escaped initial public disclosure because it used private funding.
That money came, in part, from a political action committee set up by two UTA board members, and its top donors are UTA contractors. Still, UTA said it did not know beforehand about that trip.
UTA Board Vice Chairman Chris Bleak, who went on the trip and helped organize the PAC that helped fund it, resigned two weeks ago saying his departure was unrelated to the trip.
Burton has said two other members are expected to resign shortly, but he has not named them. However, the board members likely to leave are Sheldon Killpack, who went on the trip, and Justin Allen, who helped organize the PAC that contributed to it.
Hughes, who appointed Killpack, said he has considered asking the former state senator to step aside to allow appointment of a nonpolitician.
Allen has said he wanted to talk to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who appointed him, before talking about his future on the board.