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The Utah Transit Authority denied my reasonable request for a few minutes of time during the April 12 board meeting to publicly present a list of proposed agency reforms and to express concerns about the agency's reaction to the unprecedented placement of the UTA under federal monitorship to avoid possible criminal prosecution. This underscores the need for additional reforms.
After the meeting, two reporters approached me, and a top UTA executive came over to monitor the conversation and to explain I was "not allowed" to answer media questions, per the UTA "Media Policy." While the chairman to his credit allowed me to answer media questions after the reporters objected, this unsettling episode is unacceptable for a public agency operating in the United States of America under the First Amendment.
The solutions to improving UTA governance and earning back public trust are simple concepts as old as American democracy itself: "separation of powers," and, "checks and balances." Our Founders realized the importance of separating power among different offices or branches and of ensuring that parties exercising power were able to check and balance one another. As Lord Acton famously said, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," and separating power and providing for checks and balances are essential to maintain public trust. If such checks had been in place and exercised, the abuses at UTA would never have been able to occur.
I believe that too much power has been concentrated into too few executive hands at UTA, and that the Board of Trustees has not provided adequate checks to balance that power. For example, a review of UTA meeting minutes for 2015 and 2016 finds that the most common phrase repeated in the minutes is, "the motion carried by unanimous consent," and that only four individual "no" votes were among the approximately 2,000 total votes cast by 16 board members. Democracy should involve healthy tension and competing opinions, with the end result being a thoroughly challenged and vetted decision an outcome that unanimity rarely achieves.
For every dollar in fares collected by UTA, nearly five dollars of subsidy are paid by Utah taxpayers. We must never forget that fact and that the taxpayers most of whom pay for but never use UTA deserve a model of governance that is worthy of their hard-earned tax dollars. To that end, I propose the following to strengthen and improve the oversight role of the board:
• Transparency and Openness: Explicitly list all items to be considered on the board agenda (e.g., no more nondescript agenda items stating, "action taken regarding matters discussed in closed session"); treat all UTA Board or committee meetings as public; repeal the UTA media policy, which promotes groupthink and artificial unanimity.
• Governance: Foster a climate of healthy debate on the board where alternate views are welcomed and encouraged; carefully scrutinize all management proposals, and vote proposals down as appropriate; reform UTA executive compensation and eliminate or significantly reduce bonus programs; stop using tax dollars to hire outside lobbyists to the Utah Legislature.
• Transit Oriented Development Land Deals: Require appraisals and purchase and sale agreements to be completed before presenting any land deal to the board for approval; give the board and public time and opportunity to scrutinize the details. The UTA is a public agency and the taxpayer's interests must come before the convenience or privacy of any developer.
With the UTA entering a period of federal oversight and monitorship, with state lawmakers talking openly about putting the UTA under state management, and with the loss of public trust, this is a time for immediate action to improve governance and to build upon the positive reforms over the past few years. And if any UTA executives are not on board with enhancing and strengthening separation of powers and checks and balances at UTA, then they must be replaced with leaders who are ready to do so.
In the long-run, more balanced oversight will be better for UTA leaders as accountability engenders success; it will be better for the hard-working and dedicated UTA employees who unfairly suffer the fallout from inadequate UTA governance practices; it will be better for UTA passengers who are the purpose for which UTA exists; and, above all, it will allow the UTA to rebuild public trust by implementing the type of balanced governance that Utah taxpayers expect and deserve. I look forward to listening to proposals and ideas from other Board members and working together for a better UTA.
Brent Taylor is the mayor of North Ogden City and the newest member of the UTA Board of Trustees; he is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and is a graduate of Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. This column solely contains the personal opinions of Mr. Taylor and does not represent or reflect the opinions of the UTA or the UTA Board of Trustees.