UTA attacked, defended after tough audit
A day after a state audit lambasted the Utah Transit Authority, some were calling for a shake-up or for heads to roll including a parade of citizens who vented at a UTA board meeting.
But UTA officials received some key support, too, including from Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who requested the audit.
Valentine said Wednesday that he blames problems flagged by auditors on past UTA leaders and believes the agency has taken steps to resolve issues. Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who is also chairman of the UTA board, also voiced firm backing for UTA executives.
As an example of the criticism flying Wednesday, Christopher Stout, president of a group calling itself the Utah Transit Users Union, told the UTA Board, "Despite that scathing audit, you as members of the board and officials of UTA's management still insist that everything is copacetic. It's time to wake up and accept the responsibility of the mess."
As an example of support for UTA, Valentine said on the Tribune's Trib Talk webcast, "I do trust the present team. I think there were problems with the prior team" at the agency.
"I think there were some insider transactions," Valentine said, blaming them on people no longer at UTA. He said of current managers and board members: "I think they have cleaned up their act."
The audit criticized, in part, millions in sweetheart deals for developer Jeff Vitek in late 2009 and early 2010 including giving him a $10 million "prepayment" for a parking garage he never built. Auditors say UTA still is owed $1.7 million in repayment.
That came just after Vitek made a multimillion deal that benefitted Terry Diehl, who at the time was a senior UTA board member but was later pressured to resign by the board.
UTA General Manager Michael Allegra rose to his top position in April 2010, a bit after the sweetheart transactions. But he was assistant general manager when they occurred, and has worked at UTA since the 1970s.
Hughes, who has served on the board since 2006 and was elected chairman in June 2010, expressed full confidence in Allegra and his team during Trib Talk.
"UTA has created a national reputation for doing projects ahead of schedule and under budget," he said.
Allegra is so important to UTA, Hughes added, that when he was up for jobs at transit agencies in Denver and Hawaii, UTA retained him by persuading previous General Manager John Inglish to retire early to promote Allegra.
While Valentine and Hughes expressed confidence in UTA leadership, others were calling for a shake-up.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, tweeted online Wednesday, "I have two questions about the UTA audit: Who's getting fired and who's going to jail?"
He said in an interview that was not just a light-hearted tweet. "After all is said and done, we still have $1.7 million in taxpayer funds" not repaid from the questionable $10 million deal, and continued controversy over high pay and bonuses. "I don't know how you turn a blind eye to that."
A parade of citizens expressed similar concerns at the UTA Board's monthly meeting. They complained about audit findings of extravagant pay and bonuses (Allegra's compensation is $402,000 a year) and deep debt that might prevent restoring bus service that was cut to fund new train lines.
Tammi Diaz, held onto a walker with a sign saying, "UTA Stop the Lying."
"If I could, I would fire all the executives, clean the board out," she said. "I will fight against any sales-tax increase [for transit] with all the corruption."
Diaz said expanded bus service is needed, "but salaries need to be cut and bonuses need to be eliminated" to help fund it.
UTA is suing to condemn Kerry Hamblin's furniture-making business to make way for a new $60 million garage for natural gas buses. Hamblin has said it would cost him $2 million to replace his building and move, but UTA has only offered him $260,000.
"You come and make a nickel-and-dime offer to me, and then you turn around give $10 million for nothing," he said. "You've ruined my 41-year-old business."
"You are the most hated entity in Salt Lake County. You are responsible for that," said George Chapman.
Alex Cragun presented a petition with more than 3,300 signatures collected online that seeks extension of UTA operating hours at night. He said providing the service is complicated by the costs and problems identified in the audit. "UTA needs to change," he said.
He issued a challenge he says may bring that change: have board members use UTA service exclusively for seven days without a car to see what riders and others deal with.
He asked how many trustees would take the challenge. Two of the 15 present raised their hands Hughes and Necia Christensen.
Joining criticism Wednesday was the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah. It issued a statement saying the audit shows a "disappointing level of indifference to conflicts of interest between board members, developers and even a sitting legislator" Hughes.
The group, which gained prominence over its elections-law complaint last year against former Attorney General John Swallow, said that Hughes serving as a state lawmaker and UTA board member is a conflict of interest as the Legislature is reviewing UTA operations, and charged that a "cavalier use of public funds" occurred under his leadership.
Hughes said the Legislature passed a law in 2006 to allow elected officials to serve on the UTA board, and he feels there is improved accountability by including people who must answer to voters. "There is no conflict of interest," he said.