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An inadvertent remark Monday revealed that the Utah Transit Authority has creatively circumvented its recent vow to keep all its board committee meetings open to the public.
UTA board member Charles Henderson mentioned Monday during a public UTA executive board meeting that the Planning and Development Committee he heads met last week to discuss the agency's goals for the upcoming year.
The problem is that that meeting had no public notice, and UTA had specifically told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that no committees were meeting, despite being scheduled on earlier calendars.
Soon after The Tribune emailed UTA spokesman Remi Barron asking what happened with the public notice, Henderson announced that he had misspoken. He said his committee actually didn't meet because "we don't do that anymore," and instead said it was just a group of the same members having an informal discussion about goals for the agency.
In an interview after the meeting, Henderson a Democrat running for the Utah House in District 38 in Kearns said UTA has disbanded all its committees except the executive committee and is in a process of deciding how to restructure governance of the agency.
He acknowledged that all the former members of his committee, except one, were on the conference call. He said the agency did not break a vow to keep committee meetings open because the panel doesn't exist.
UTA board Chairman H. David Burton who announced Monday he is stepping down as chairman later said the committees "are being held in abeyance" for now as the board looks at restructuring.
The agency created controversy earlier this year when it said it was going to close its committee meetings to the public, arguing such a move was allowed under Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act because members would take no votes in them. Burton at one point also said UTA closed those meetings because it did not like coverage of them by The Tribune.
Amid mounting pressure by politicians and the public, UTA reversed that position in May. Burton issued a statement then that said, "The board is announcing that future meetings will be open to the public."
The statement added, "The board will continue to refine its meeting schedule and processes to achieve the goals of transparency, public input, trust and accountability; while also improving board involvement, engagement and communication."
Although it was not specifically mentioned in that statement, Burton said Monday that refining process included putting the committees "in abeyance" as the board considers how to restructure. Meanwhile, he said, some members meet occasionally on an ad hoc basis to move business forward, and that is what happened last week.
Such meetings have occurred between a few members to help them become familiar with UTA's upcoming budget, its goals and restructuring options before they are presented to the full board, he said.
Henderson said Burton asked him to lead efforts on the board's goals, and he has had two or three conference calls with different groups of board members.
He said none of the calls had a quorum of the board or any committee since none now exists except the Executive Committee so no public notice or publishing of an agenda was required.
"This was not a board meeting. This was not a committee meeting," Burton said. "It was for them to have the opportunity to become acquainted [with work on goals], to offer some suggestions to staff. Don't make a mountain out of molehill on this one."
He added, "It's a nonstory."
Burton said UTA is committed to transparency, but that creates problems in getting members to speak freely. "How do you get discussion and dialogue and have people feel free to have a conversation if they know it's going to be in the press?"
He added, "There has to be some opportunity among small groups about some issues to get really true understanding. But I agree that any kind of a decision making, any kind of fact gathering ought to be open to the public."
Last week, The Tribune asked UTA if committee meetings previously scheduled last Wednesday had been canceled. In response, Barron emailed simply, "No committee meetings tomorrow."
Because of the wording, The Tribune asked if any meetings were scheduled any other time that week. Barron replied, "I was told there are no committee meetings being held tomorrow. If any are held, they will be noticed to the public."
He did not say that the committees were disbanded or in abeyance. Members of what had been the Planning and Development Committee then held their conference call Thursday.
"It doesn't sound like they want to be as open and transparent as what they are portraying," said Christopher Stout, president of the watchdog Utah Transit Riders Union.
He added he's disappointed that discussion about dissolving committees or restructuring is happening outside the view of the public. "This process has to be open and transparent," Stout said.
Burton issued a written statement late Wednesday afternoon that said, in part, "The UTA board is in the process of selecting new officers, and once that is done, we will soon come to a final decision on our committee structure. ... We look forward to sharing more about our meeting restructuring with the public as soon as it is finalized."
Burton said Monday that he is leaving as chairman of the agency after two years in the post.
The Executive Committee proposed that Robert McKinley, one of two vice chairmen and a labor and employment relations attorney for the law firm of Kirton McConkie, become the new chairman. The full board is scheduled to vote on that Sept. 28.
Burton said Monday he is unsure whether Gov. Gary Herbert will renew his appointment to the UTA board and whether he will continue serving.
Burton, the former presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently was named chairman of the University of Utah board of trustees. He said it would not be appropriate to continue as chairman of both boards.