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As Salt Lake County Council members threatened Tuesday to block money for the Utah Transit Authority amid a new flap over secret meetings, UTA officials revised their story about what happened.
UTA board member Charles Henderson had said last week that all but one member of the board's Planning and Development Committee participated in a conference call about UTA goals. No agenda was posted despite a vow in May to have all such meetings open to the public.
Henderson said in a recorded interview then that UTA had disbanded its committees. Since they no longer existed, he argued, members of his former committee gathering for an informal discussion did not violate the board's promise of transparency.
On Tuesday, UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson instead told the County Council that "three members of the board and a number of staff" participated in the call in question, not a quorum of any committee.
Henderson told the council, "I stubbed my toe last week by misspeaking. We had a telephone-conference call of board members arranged by staff. I was not even aware of the individuals who had been actually invited."
Participants were "a couple board members in addition to myself. … I apologize, not only to the public as a whole, but also to this council," which appointed him to the UTA board.
Henderson, a Democrat who is running for state House District 38, declined to further comment to The Salt Lake Tribune about who was in the meeting.
Benson told the County Council that no UTA committees, except the executive committee, have met since May as the board has been considering how to revise its structure. It was in May that board Chairman H. David Burton had promised that all meetings of the board committees would be open.
That promise reversed course from earlier UTA plans to close all committee meetings to the public, based on the argument that such closure was allowed under Utah's open-meetings law because no votes would be taken. The move prompted County Council member Richard Snelgrove to propose blocking distribution of $150 million in sales tax the county collects for UTA.
Snelgrove renewed the threat last week amid the latest controversy, and on Tuesday, he asked for explanations. "Our citizens want complete openness and transparency on this issue," he said.
Benson asked that UTA "be given a chance to demonstrate our openness and increased transparency and increased opportunities for the public to engage in what we're doing. It's something we care about. It's something we're working to improve." He promised to unveil a new committee structure soon.
Councilman Steve DeBry said Salt Lake County voters rejected Proposition 1 last year to raise transportation taxes because they don't trust UTA. "When there are any type of meetings that are behind the scenes and not totally transparent, it just adds to the past history."
He added that "until you rebuild trust with me," he would vote against future efforts to ask voters again to raise transportation taxes.
Councilwoman Jenny Wilson also told the UTA officials, "Until you are able to take active steps to restore the good will of the public, it puts us in a difficult position" to support the transit agency.
But the Democrat took a shot at majority Republicans on the Council.
"I am a little shocked to see the impassioned speeches by a couple people. You all have held closed meetings," with the five GOP members of the nine-member council meeting behind closed doors, Wilson said. That should stop, she added, "before you point fingers across the table."
Snelgrove shot back, "I am surprised you would make this a partisan issue, that you would take this opportunity to simply lob partisan bombs. It is not appropriate," he said, adding council Republicans have increased public comment and access over what Democrats offered. "We don't need lectures from you, Jenny."
Meanwhile, George Chapman, of the watchdog Utah Transit Riders Union, said he does not believe UTA's revised account of whether a committee met secretly last week.
"This is the way they have done business for years. They are not evil, they just have this habit of going into those [closed] meetings," he said. "Good decisions die behind closed doors."
On a separate topic, Benson defended UTA proposals to discontinue direct ski bus service from downtown Salt Lake City to shift resources to enable greater frequency of buses in the canyons themselves.
The change, he said, could actually improve service for people downtown "because a connection from TRAX or FrontRunner to a bus that is every 15 minutes is actually going to make it easier for them to get up the canyon than if they had to wait for the one or two trips a day" to and from downtown that have been available.