UTA name is here to stay, but A.G. says agency broke open-meetings law when it acted to give former CEO a golden parachute

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) A TRAX train turns the corner on 200 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City, Thursday April 26, 2018.

Legislators decided Wednesday to throw out their recent order to change the name of the Utah Transit Authority to the Transit District of Utah.

While they maintain the agency’s estimated $50 million cost to implement the switch was grossly exaggerated, they concede it created so much public angst that it distracted from the other, more important restructuring and reform moves. So the UTA name is here to stay.

Also on Wednesday, the Utah attorney general’s office issued a letter saying the current UTA board likely violated the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act when it approved terminating former President and CEO Jerry Benson — a step that allowed him to take a lucrative severance package worth perhaps $282,000.

A letter from the A.G. urges the agency to hold the meeting anew and reconsider its action in public.

Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, the House sponsor of SB136, the law that restructures UTA, said the public was upset amid agency assertions that it would cost $50 million to change its name. As Schultz sees it, that created a distraction, allowing UTA to quietly pull a fast one to benefit Benson.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, on the floor of the House of Representatives at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Friday, Feb. 2, 2018.

“Not handling the firing of Jerry Benson in an appropriate manner and breaking the law in doing so … goes right to the heart of the issues we have seen over the past several years with UTA,” he said at a Capitol news conference.

The public agenda for an April 18 UTA board meeting did not list consideration of firing Benson that day. The agenda did say the board might have a closed session to discuss employment issues. The board then emerged from the session to terminate Benson without public discussion, the A.G.’s letter said.

“UTA may not have been compliant with OPMA,” the Open and Public Meetings Act, the letter said. “We encourage UTA to call another meeting” to consider Benson’s firing and his severance package publicly.

Steve Meyer, interim UTA director, issued a statement in response to the A.G.’s letter, saying, “We’re working with his office to ensure the agency fully complies with” the open-meetings law.

It did not say whether the meeting would be reheld, and whether Benson’s termination and severance would be reconsidered. Schultz said he hopes the agency will take those actions.

Benson’s contract clearly gives him a severance package if he is terminated “without cause,” such as if his job or funding for it disappeared, Schultz has said. Whether he would receive it in other circumstances is murky.

Benson’s contract called for a severance worth nine months of his pay and insurance benefits. Utah’s transparency website said Benson received $376,000 in compensation for the full year in 2017 — $238,169 in wages, $35,812 in paid leave and $102,023 in benefits. Nine months of that would total about $282,000.

Courtesy | Utah Transit Authority Jerry Benson, former UTA president and CEO.

UTA officials insisted SB136 required UTA to fire Benson on May 8, when the new law took effect. But Schultz said that is false, and Benson could have continued as interim director with largely the same duties.

Schultz also complained that the UTA board recently changed rules to allow the quick rehiring of agency attorneys as consultants in face of SB136’s eventual shifting of legal responsibilities to the A.G.’s office.

The new law will replace the current part-time, 16-member board Nov. 1 with a three-member, full-time commission appointed by the governor — who may also fire them at will. Schultz said that may stop what he sees as questionable actions by the current board that contributed to past scandals.

Meanwhile, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the main sponsor of SB136, said he will introduce legislation next year to keep the UTA name and asked the current board to hold off on announced plans to hire a consultant to help rebrand the agency under the name Transit District of Utah.

“When businesses undergo this level of change, it is common practice to rebrand,” Harper said. He complained about UTA’s claim that it would cost $50 million to repaint trains, buses, cars and signs and redesign uniforms and media.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Wayne Harper discusses the Prison Relocation Commission's recommendation to build a new correctional facility in Salt Lake City, during a special session, Wednesday, Aug.19, 2015.

“That’s just not correct,” he added, noting the law also allowed UTA to implement a name change slowly over time as resources permitted.

“Due to this confusion and misinformation,” Harper said, “we are requesting that UTA cease all efforts immediately on rebranding.”

Said Schultz: “It’s clear this was put out there by UTA as a way to create controversy around the name change, to mislead the public, and that goes right to the heart of the issues we’re trying to fix with the bill.”

UTA issued a written statement Wednesday saying it “has been working in good faith to comply with and implement requirements of SB136, and the organization will continue working with lawmakers in good faith. With that in mind, UTA will comply with today’s directions to cease all efforts to rebrand the agency.”

Gov. Gary Herbert has from the beginning opposed the UTA name change, and he praised Wednesday’s action to reverse the mandate.

“It’s a bad idea because it has nothing to do with what people actually care about, which is the efficient operation of UTA,” Herbert said in a statement.