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The Utah Transit Authority would be forced to change how its board members are chosen, face a ban on new "transit-oriented development" deals and be required to improve how it listens to the public under a bill introduced in the Legislature on Friday.
Sen. Wayne Harper's SB174 follows years of controversy over high UTA executive salaries and bonuses, extensive international travel, sweetheart deals with developers and, most recently, whether its meetings should be open to the public.
UTA officials told legislators last year that they have fixed such problems but some groups still called for changes, either to elect the now-appointed UTA board or to require that only elected officials such as mayors serve on it. Reformers see such changes as pushing the board to be more responsive to the public.
Harper, R-Taylorsville, is taking a different approach. He wants to reduce the number of UTA board members from 16 to eight, each representing equally populated districts across the six counties served by the agency to be drawn by the lieutenant governor's office.
Mayors and county commissioners in each district would jointly nominate one UTA board member to a four-year term. Nominees would need to be confirmed by the Utah Senate. The governor would appoint one board member to serve as chairman.
Harper said such a system would "enhance the importance" of serving on the board, "and make sure we have the right people there those who are committed to make sure UTA operates at its best."
In previous years, Harper had sponsored bills to expand the UTA board size. But that didn't work well. "It became too big, too burdensome, so I am taking it back down to what is a more reasonable level," he said.
SB174 would also create a new eight-member UTA citizens advisory board. "They are going to be boots-on-the-ground people who report back to the board exactly what they are hearing about how the board can improve transit," the senator said.
Also, Harper believes the bill would "beef up the duties and the visibility of the [UTA] office of constituent services" to drive home the importance of responding to the public and complaints.
The bill proposes to ban UTA from entering into partnerships for more transit-oriented developments beyond eight previously approved by the legislature, and would require formal cost-benefit analyses of ones in the works to show that investment in them benefits the public and would improve transit service.
In such developments, UTA usually uses excess land it owns at rail stations to partner with developers for residential and commercial projects designed to increase transit ridership. But audits have criticized sweetheart deals for some developers and building large garages for their projects that sat mostly empty for years because of developer delays.
The bill also would create a task force to study how the state should coordinate future funding and possible tax hikes for transit, highways, airports and other transportation projects.
"We know that federal funds are dropping off for transit. I am sure that UTA will start requesting additional funds to operate or expand. That's going to be competing with highways, pathways, bikeways. How do we coordinate that?" Harper said.
UTA spokesman Remi Barron said, "UTA will respond to questions from lawmakers as this bill makes its way through the public legislative process." It has one high-powered former official in the Legislature: House Speaker Greg Hughes is the former chairman of UTA.
The bill comes after a Senate committee on Thursday passed a separate bill seeking other UTA reforms and was endorsed after lawmakers criticized the agency.
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, is pushing SB103 to ensure UTA Board committee meetings are open after the agency last spring attempted to close them, but reversed course amid political pressure. The bill also would speed appeals of UTA denials to open-records law requests.
It would also ban the agency from hiring so-called "union busting" consultants to help defeat unionization efforts. It spent $74,000 on them last year to help defeat an election to decide whether 44 TRAX supervisors could unionize.
Meanwhile, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, introduced a bill, that may help UTA avoid such unionization efforts. His SB176, to would prevent transit supervisors and "professional employees" such as the 44 who held and defeated an election last year from joining a union.
Weiler said supervisors in private industries are prevented from unionizing, and it should be the same for governmental entities.
He added, "UTA is working hard to improve is service and needs a clear line of communication with its supervisors to continue to improve," Weiler said. "Having them unionized would complicate that."
Mayne, whose late husband, Ed Mayne, was president of the Utah AFL-CIO union, criticized Weiler's bill as unnecessary. She noted the Teamsters and supervisors waged a legal battle for years before the court allowed a unionization election for them.
"But they lost" the election, she said. "So what's the point in this bill now?"
She questioned whether it is also a step toward banning school principals or other supervisors from joining teacher unions, or other public supervisors from joining the Utah Public Employees Association.