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Editorial: UTA still has work to do to gain public trust

Taxpayers are UTA’s bosses.

First Published Aug 28 2014 04:43 pm • Last Updated Aug 28 2014 05:19 pm

Rep. Greg Hughes wears two hats as a public servant. He is the majority whip in the Utah Legislature, and he is also the chairman of the board of the Utah Transit Authority.

That makes his comments Wednesday about UTA’s recent audit particularly interesting. On the Tribune’s TribTalk web interview, Rep. Hughes was asked if the fact that UTA has faced three legislative audits since 2008 is a sign of mismanagement at the agency. He said "there’s a political component" to audits and legislators can request them "for whatever motivation they have."

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Then he went on to point out that the UTA doesn’t even get any direct appropriations through the Legislature and instead is funded by a voter-approved sales tax, federal funds and the fares from riders.

The implication of Rep. Hughes’ statements, whether he meant it or not, is that the legislators are seeking more UTA oversight than they should. And that, above all, is the continuing dilemma for Utahns who rightfully demand both an effective transit agency, which they have, and one that is responsive to taxpayer concerns, which they don’t have.

Public oversight of UTA is fractured. The board is made up of appointees from several jurisdictions. City and county governments appoint some members, and the Legislature and the governor appoint others, which means that no elected official takes full responsibility. Rep. Hughes’ statements about the audit only reinforce that.

The parade of offenses in the audit — the sweetheart deal for a developer, the private-sector-like executive bonuses, the slow release of information to auditors — do not erase the progress that UTA has demonstrated in encouraging a sprawl-inclined population to embrace mass transit. It’s also noteworthy that UTA also has agreed to implement all of the audit’s recommendations.

Utah faces daunting quality of life issues regarding air pollution and traffic — issues that UTA is actively trying to address, and UTA has brought in massive projects millions of dollars under budget.

But all that doesn’t make it right to hand out $30,000 bonuses while cutting bus routes and let a developer have $10 million for a parking lot that someone else ended up building. (He still owes UTA $1.7 million.)

If UTA cannot demonstrate a better sense for what it means to work for the taxpaying public, then perhaps lawmakers should consider a change in the oversight structure. Some transit agencies even make their top positions an elected office. That comes with its own disadvantages, but at least there would be more direct accountability.

Until then, UTA leaders have work to do to convince Utahns they know how to handle their money. If they don’t, this won’t be their last audit.

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