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Salt Lake County Council members feel they made their point threatening to delay the pass-through of $150 million in county taxpayers' money to Utah Transit Authority until the agency rescinded a decision last month to close committee meetings to the public.
Now they want to figure out what real authority the council has in shaping the way UTA does business long term.
While the earlier threat pushed by Republican Councilman Richard Snelgrove apparently helped drive UTA's reconsideration, most council members say a "collegial and collaborative" approach would be more productive over the long run.
"The tenor of what we say is important," said Democrat Jim Bradley. "Are we on a witch hunt or … just seeking additional information?"
He called the council's earlier pressure an "absolutely appropriate, positive move to send a message to UTA you do this in the sunshine or you don't." But things are different now, Bradley added. "What is our motive? Do we want to see how they're spending money?"
You bet, Snelgrove answered. "One thing is for sure," he added. "The people of Salt Lake County definitely want to know and feel comfortable if the $150 million they send to UTA annually is being spent wisely."
The council opted to follow the collegial approach recommended by its lead staff member, Dave Delquadro. He suggested the county's debt review committee, composed of finance-oriented personnel in various county offices, meet with UTA officials to talk about how the agency specifically uses the $150 million from county taxpayers.
"The [committee] could help us get more meat on the bone," he said, referring to details established before the council gets involved again.
The council has legal authority to ask UTA these kinds of questions, advised council attorney Jason Rose.
Statutes and ordinances give the council "very broad investigative power over any matter pertaining to the county or its business," he said. "This is tax money imposed by the county. Any time the County Council wants to investigate how this money is used, it can."
The law is a little less clear about the county's authority to audit UTA, Rose said, in part because the transit agency's revenues comes from multiple sources, often mixed together to fund the system.
Still, he added, "unless there's a law that says you can't audit UTA, the County Council could look to audit" use of the $150 million, which a 2014 state auditor's report said had to appear on the county's books.
Before proceeding on this front, Rose suggested the council talk to legislators and the state auditor about the scope of its authority.
Another issue to evolve out of the furor over UTA's closed meetings is that longtime Republican council member Michael Jensen and Democratic minority leader Jenny Wilson agreed the County Council does not have enough say in UTA's board structure.
"It's ironic and troubling to me," Jensen said, "that $150 million flows through Salt Lake County. We put it out to the voters. We took the political risk. But we have no say. We have no seat at the [UTA board] table" other than Charles Henderson, who represents only the county's shrinking unincorporated areas.
"It's time for a different conversation about our role," he added.
Wilson, who said earlier she was involved in discussions about legislatively changing UTA's governance structure, said that as the county evolves to be a more regional government, the council's influence on the agency's board should be enhanced.
"We do have a voice in this process. It's time we better understand that," Wilson said, calling herself a supporter of UTA "as a great partner and contributor. But clearly, there's been some problems. … If we're one of four or five organizations with influence over them, we should do it."