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'If you want scandals, he's your guy': Utah transportation commission nominee barely survives confirmation hearing

Published June 1, 2017 12:57 pm

Transportation commission nominee attacked for alleged misdeeds, lax oversight as UTA chairman.
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After two hours of citizen complaints and grilling by legislators, Larry Ellertson barely survived a confirmation hearing Wednesday toward becoming chairman of the Utah Transportation Commission — which oversees highway funding.

"If you want scandals, he's your guy," Mark Allen, founder of Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon, told a Senate transportation confirmation committee before it voted 3-2 to send Ellertson's nomination by Gov. Gary Herbert to the full Senate.

Some senators who supported him for now said they are unsure if they will vote for him in the end — and warned they will continue to investigate numerous allegations of misconduct or lax oversight when he served as chairman of both the Utah Transit Authority and the Utah County Commission.

Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, chairman of the confirmation committee, warned, "I will study these issues more in depth. So will my compadres here."

Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, said, "I've never seen this much organization or outcry over a candidate. That gives me real pause. ... I'm still going to look into this real seriously." Some complaints by a parade of residents testifying against Ellertson focused on his service on the UTA board from 2005 to 2015. UTA has been criticized in audits and an ongoing federal investigation for sweetheart deals with developers at the time, high executive salaries and exorbitant travel by administrators.

Ellertson said he was not aware of details of such problems or occurrences when he was on the board and even when he was its chairman for two years, adding that the board focused on general policy that managers were to implement.

"It's the business of a board member, and it's the business of a board chair, to know those things," said Sharon Anderson of Orem.

Others attacked him for traveling to Switzerland — perhaps at the expense of Snowbird, although Ellertson said he didn't know who paid — as that ski resort was trying to gain access to land at the top of American Fork Canyon.

Allen, with a group trying to protect the canyon, said Ellertson formed a group to discuss plans for the canyon without giving public notice and fought open-records requests for information about it. "They were advancing Snowbird's agenda in the canyon," he said. "I do not find the candidate to be a man of integrity. I find him to be a bully. ... I have seen him to be a suppressor of truth."

Others attacked Ellertson as someone who is mean to those with whom he disagrees — including over fights whether Utah County should issue bonds for a bus rapid transit system in Orem and Provo.

"I have found Mr. Ellertson unwilling to work with the public, dismissive and far from transparent," said Jennifer Baptista of Pleasant Grove. "[He] has done everything he could to try to attack my character, silence my voice by using intimidation and undermining anything I attempted to do to allow for full transparency."

Ellertson said opposition was coming from a relatively small group who disliked a few votes and actions he had taken in office. "Other people who do know me would give you a different view," he said, adding that he worked hard to be fair and listen while in office.

The two Democrats on the committee opposed Ellertson's nomination. Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said that besides UTA, Ellertson served on several other committees and boards that have been blasted in audits for lax oversight.

"I don't know if it's a bad luck stroke on Mr. Ellertson's part or what's happening," he said. "Why do we have these boards if boards don't pay attention?"

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said appointing Ellertson after the scandals on boards that he served on "is bad optics," and "there's just too much stuff. We can't have it pass."






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