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The Utah Senate on Wednesday confirmed longtime state worker Salvador Petilos as head of the state's embattled liquor-control agency, even though members of a Senate committee earlier in the day voiced concerns that he brings no retail, warehousing or shipping experience to the job.
Although the panel ended up unanimously approving Petilos' nomination, sending his name on to the Senate for eventual confirmation, it postponed action on two nominees to the board that oversees the agency, Olivia Vela Agraz, a community volunteer; and former acting agency director Francine Giani, who also is executive director of the Commerce Department.
Sen. John Valentine-R-Orem, said the board confirmations were put on hold until lawmakers could meet with Gov. Gary Herbert, who nominated Giani to the liquor commission last month. Valentine said lines of authority might be blurred if Giani continued to direct one department while serving as a policymaker for another state agency.
"It's just really confusing," said Valentine. "You would have an executive director of one department serving on [another] board making policy. It just doesn't work."
Herbert spokeswoman Ally Isom said the governor was confident Giani was "imminently qualified for this position, and has proven herself in cleaning up the liquor agency. Apart from her qualifications, the governor is willing to take the time to review their concerns to ensure the Legislature is comfortable with her appointment."
During Giani's one-year stint as interim director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, she questioned whether its part-time citizens' board that meets once monthly could effectively manage the sprawling agency that maintains a virtual monopoly on state liquor sales.
Legislators subsequently decided to retain the part-time liquor board, but increased the number of commissioners from five to seven members as of July 1.
Giani earned rave reviews from lawmakers for her work at the DABC, and on Wednesday Valentine stressed that concerns over her appointment to the board had nothing to do with her time there. Giani was put in charge of an agency singled out for criticism in a series of legislative audits.
As her successor, Petilos, 51, will be in charge of an agency with an annual budget of $300 million. He told lawmakers Wednesday that although he is "not the sharpest knife in the drawer," his collaborative management style and ability to "look at the issues" will help bring best business practices to the department.
The DABC has not had a permanent boss since Dennis Kellen was forced to resign a year ago when audits revealed that the agency, under his control, failed to get competitive bids and then paid premium prices for supplies, equipment and services provided exclusively by Flexpak, a Woods Cross-based company owned by Kellen's son. At least three other top executives left the department amid questions about its operations.
Since the resignations, the DABC "has a new team" in place working to implement auditors' recommendations, said Petilos.
Petilos, who has worked for the state for 16 years, has a background in law and as an analyst dealing with state policy. In terms of DABC policy, he told the legislative panel he would be quick to defer to the governor and lawmakers.
Asked by lawmakers about whether liquor sales in Utah should ever be privatized, Petilos said that would be a decision for the executive and legislative branches. He added that although private stores may provide consumers with more types of products and longer liquor store hours, "concerns about consumption requires intensive analysis of the issue."
Since 2008, Petilos has been deputy director of the Department of Administrative Services. His duties included providing oversight on state policy and ensuring compliance with laws, regulations, rules, standards and guidelines. He joined the department in 2000, serving as an auditor and a hearing officer for employee grievances.
Petilos, a graduate of Rutgers University and Fordham University School of Law, also served as the treasurer of the National Association of State Chief Administrators.
State liquor board appointments
Director • Salvador D. Petilos, confirmed by Senate
Postponed • Board member nominee Francine Giani, director Utah Commerce Department
Postponed • Board member nominee Olivia Vela Agraz, a longtime community volunteer