UTA says new law requires it to fire President and CEO Jerry Benson

Courtesy | Utah Transit Authority UTA is proposing to name Jerry Benson, its acting president and CEO, as the agency's permanent chief.

After studying a just-passed law that restructures the Utah Transit Authority, its board figured Wednesday that it must terminate UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson, effective May 7.

The board said it determined that SB136 — which takes effect May 8 — eliminates the positions of president, CEO and general manager, all of which were held by Benson. So it said it has no authority to employ anyone in those jobs after May 8.

The same law also will replace the current part-time, 16-member UTA board with a full-time, three-member board on Nov. 1 — a move designed to bring more accountability to the scandal-tainted agency. The law allows the new board to hire an executive director. It allows hiring an interim director until then.

“The board is doing what it feels best to open the door to new leadership to take this great agency forward,” said Greg Bell, chairman of the current UTA board and a former state lieutenant governor.

“I want to emphasize the board has the highest regard and respect for Jerry Benson,” Bell said. “We appreciate his dedicated service to UTA not just for the past 35 years but especially for the role he played as president and CEO, taking the agency through a difficult time of change.”

Benson said SB136 “has established a new day and a new era for UTA and transit in the state of Utah. The mission goes forward. I’m confident new leaders with new vision will take UTA through the upcoming period of change. As I move on, I know UTA is prepared to move forward as well.”

He added: “I am proud of my time here at UTA and all that we as a team have been able to accomplish.”

Benson has been president and CEO since 2016, taking over the helm from Michael Allegra, who retired. Benson had served in numerous other positions, including vice president of operations, chief operating officer, chief performance officer, director of communications and director of human resources. He has a Ph.D. in organizational communication.

The state’s transparency website says Benson received $376,004 in compensation in 2017 — $238,169 in wages, $35,812 in paid leave and $102,023 in benefits.

High executive pay at UTA has been criticized in state audits, as were extensive international travel for past executives and sweetheart deals for developers building near rail stations.

Last spring, UTA and prosecutors announced that the transit agency was given immunity in an ongoing federal probe into former officials — including scrutiny of its real estate deals. UTA agreed to submit to several years of federal oversight and pledged cooperation with investigators.

Such problems are among reasons legislators passed SB136, which restructures the agency and its funding. The law will even change the agency’s name to Transit District of Utah to help signal the revamp, although UTA says that will cost up to $50 million, and it may ask legislators to reconsider.

Last fall, the UTA restructured pay and benefits for executives — which Benson then said brought it in line with industry standards. But then-board member Brent Taylor, who was the mayor of North Ogden, said that salaries were still too high and that retirement plans were too generous.

With the change at that time in executive retirement savings programs, for every $3 in top executives’ pay, UTA matched it with $7 — capped with a maximum match of 7 percent of salary.

The match for nonexecutives was far less generous. For others, the agency provides a $2 match for every $3 they contribute — up to 2 percent of salary.

SB136 also requires UTA to begin using the Utah Attorney General’s Office for legal services instead of its own lawyers — with a full transition required by June 30, 2019. The UTA board approved a resolution Wednesday to allow UTA to contract with its attorneys on an as-needed basis during the transition period.