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A former Utah Transit Authority official says he was fired for warning the agency that it was violating federal safety rules and bosses overrode those alerts in an attempt to help create positive publicity before the Proposition 1 vote to raise transit taxes.
The fired official is J. Michael Clara, a Salt Lake City School Board member known for sparring with colleagues including suing them for possible violations of open-meetings law. He even dressed as the "Frito Bandito" to protest board moves he said hurt minorities, including assigning a police officer to watch him in meetings.
Clara's day job was as a transit planner for UTA, where he worked for 20 years. He has now lodged a federal whistleblower complaint over his firing, and filed a formal notice that he intends to sue UTA (required before actually filing suit).
"Among other things, I approved bus stops," he said about his job. "When they create new routes, I drive a bus to test it. I see where problems are going to be operationally, then work with governments to fix it by altering intersections or adding a traffic light, removing parking, etc."
He says he ran into trouble in October when he attempted to halt requests for new bus stops and shelters along 200 South in Salt Lake City.
"Many of the improvements did not meet federal regulations, nor did they comport to UTA bus stop standards," he wrote in his intent-to-sue letter. He also says that failure to comply with rules puts at risk federal money used in such projects.
"I was told it was vital that the bus stop enhancements be installed in advance of the Proposition 1 bond election regardless of ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] regulations and UTA safety standards. I was also told that my 'job was on the line' due to my lack of cooperation," he wrote.
Election • UTA told voters that Prop 1 money would go largely to enhance bus service, and a minor part of that would be adding shelters and benches. It posted a blog before the election pointing to the 200 South improvements as examples of work by UTA to add amenities and make them accessible for the disabled.
Clara said other UTA officials overrode his objections, and ordered that the new stops and shelters be installed. He said one at 120 E. 200 South caused a bus accident on Oct. 12, and one shelter was removed shortly after it was installed because of access problems.
As an example of problems, he said a shelter at 200 South and State Street was installed where the sidewalk had too-steep of an angle for wheelchairs.
Street parking was still allowed where buses needed to stop. It was placed where a taco stand has been operating, and problems prevented access by the disabled.
Clara said the shelter was placed where no bus stop technically existed. He showed an email where he asked superiors, "How does having a shelter where there is no stop increase confidence in UTA?"
Prop 1 passed on Nov. 3 in three counties served by UTA Davis, Weber and Tooele and failed in three: Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder.
UTA spokesman Remi Barron told The Tribune on Friday, "We have been making improvements to bus shelters throughout the service area, most notably along 200 South, 1700 South, Redwood Road and in Ogden along Washington Boulevard. We coordinate closely with all municipalities and regulatory agencies to ensure our bus stops and shelters are in compliance with all safety regulations."
As Clara tussled with superiors, he also complained about what he felt was a misstatement by UTA after wheelchair-bound Donald Brown, 61, was struck and killed by a TRAX train on Oct. 2 just south of the Murray Central station.
Brown's girlfriend said he was struck when his wheels went off the sidewalk and became stuck between it and some rocks, while a UTA spokesman told KUTV that he was hit while trying to rush ahead of an oncoming train.
The UTA spokesman was also quoted saying UTA officials had examined the crosswalk and determined that everything met federal code and guidelines.
Clara said in his whistle-blower complaint that he told superiors "that many of UTA railroad crossings were not compliant with ADA as they have [a] gap between the railroad and asphalt. We drove over to the 4500 S. TRAX station and I showed [a manager] what I was talking about."
Clara wrote that his own supervisor "told me to let it go because I had already drawn too much attention to myself and I was jeopardizing my position at UTA."
UTA spokesman Barron said Friday, "UTA regrets the fatality you mention. Out of respect for the individuals involved, and given ongoing legal proceedings, we cannot comment specifically until the matter is fully resolved."
He added, "As a matter of policy, UTA inspects grade crossings regularly and after accidents to ensure they all comply with safety and ADA rules. New lines are inspected and verified by the FTA before opening."
Termination • Clara was fired on Nov. 20 for "job abandonment."
The letter officially notifying him says he failed to return to work for five days after a scheduled two-week vacation.
But Clara said he ended up working the first week of that vacation, so he extended it by another week and told his supervisor about those plans. "If they were worried that I had just disappeared, why didn't they call me sooner instead of just firing me?"
He added that he had trouble obtaining copies of UTA rules that he supposedly broke.
A UTA letter said the agency will provide all UTA regulations as requested if Clara promised to pay for copying, but Clara complained that UTA will not say how much it may charge.
Clara has appealed that UTA response to his open-records request to the state Records Committee.
Also, Clara said his attorney sought copies of any UTA appeals process for his firing. He wrote in complaints that UTA attorneys told the lawyer that Clara "was an 'at-will employee' and that I had no appeal rights and no further explanation will be given."
Clara pulled no punches in his intent-to-sue letter, saying "It appears that the dishonesty and unscrupulous behavior by UTA management knows no bounds."
UTA spokesman Barron said in response to Clara's assertions, "UTA does not comment specifically on terminations. We can say that it is our practice to thoroughly investigate all personnel issues prior to taking disciplinary action and to follow all state and federal laws. That was done in this case."
Barron added, "If Mr. Clara pursues legal action, we have full confidence in the judicial process to establish and confirm the facts."