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UTA chairman says agency closed meetings to public because of Tribune coverage

First Published      Last Updated Jul 01 2016 08:56 pm

Transparency? » The transit agency’s policy draws criticism from Utah Transportation Commission members.

Utah Transit Authority Board Chairman H. David Burton said Friday that the real reason his board is closing its committee meetings to the public is that it doesn't like The Salt Lake Tribune's coverage of them.

"You really want to know the truth?" Burton told a Tribune reporter asking why the meetings are now closed. "Because you screw us up."

He said the newspaper's coverage of committee discussions has made "the public perception that it is fait accompli, the decision is made" on issues — and "the public doesn't know the difference" between early discussion and final approval by the way stories are reported.

Also, because only a few of the board's 16 members attend each of the different committee meetings, he said, "Two-thirds of our board hears about issues from you rather than us. That's an intolerable situation for us to deal with."

Interim UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson added in the hallway interview that no matter the issue, he believes The Tribune always finds "a way to give it the worst spin, and concoct — if you have to — whatever facts you can."

The tape-recorded interview occurred after Burton and Benson made UTA's annual report Friday to the Utah Transportation Commission — which oversees the Utah Department of Transportation. Some of its members criticized UTA's decision to close its committee meetings at the same time the transit agency is vowing more transparency.

UTA earlier this week acknowledged that it is moving committee meetings behind closed doors, saying it did so because those subgroups will no longer make any final decisions — which now all will be handled by the full board.

However, Jeff Hunt, a media and First Amendment attorney, says the change violates Utah's open-meetings law, which applies to advisory groups.

Politicians, including Gov. Gary Herbert and his Republican primary opponent, Jonathan Johnson, also criticized the move.

UTA committees often have worked through issues to the point that passage later by the full board has come with little or no debate. News-media coverage of committees often gave early notice of UTA actions under consideration.

Now, Burton acknowledged, the full board intends, generally, to vote on issues the same day they first are debated. But he said plans call for posting agendas and background materials earlier, and for giving the public more ability to comment online or in full board meetings about those issues.

Burton told the Utah Transportation Commission on Friday those changes are part of reforms that have included reining in high executive pay and international travel, and making other ethics reforms.

"It's no secret that one of the biggest issues facing the UTA is public trust," Burton told the commission.

He said trust is essential for the public to pass sales-tax increases that UTA needs for expanded service, noting the defeat last year in Salt Lake and Utah counties of Proposition 1 to bolster funding for transit and roads.

UTA is using a new branding motto: "You can depend on UTA" amid its reforms, he said. "We will continue to find ways to be far more transparent in the public sector."

The most important thing to the agency, he said, "is public trust, it's public trust, and it's public trust."

Utah Transportation Commission Chairman Kent Millington asked, if public trust and transparency are so key, why is UTA closing its committee meetings to the public?

"It was given an unfair twist in the media," Benson responded.

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