Because it likely earlier violated open meeting laws, the Utah Transit Authority board repeated Wednesday its previous firing of agency President and CEO Jerry Benson — a step needed to ensure he is eligible for a $282,000-or-so severance package.
The narrow 6-5 vote came after 2½ hours of debate on whether the board previously was misled about whether Benson’s firing was mandated by a new state law and was needed to trigger his severance — and after his lawyer told the board he likely would sue if it did not repeat its earlier action.
“I don’t think we should make decisions based on threats of lawsuits,” complained Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who attended the meeting to continue his attacks on Benson’s lucrative severance and the firing that allowed it.
But Schultz said at least this time the board heard and considered all the facts, which he and some board members argue did not occur the first time they voted to terminate Benson on April 18.
The Utah attorney general’s office last week said that earlier meeting likely violated open meeting laws because it did not clearly list Benson’s termination on the agenda, and the board discussed it in a closed session before taking action amid little public discussion.
It urged the board to consider the action again in a public meeting with proper notice, which it did Wednesday.
Schultz, the House sponsor of SB136, complained that the board said, after its previous decision, that the new law eliminated Benson’s position, so it required firing him when the bill took effect May 8.
“That’s not accurate,” Schultz said, adding that the law simply changed the name of Benson’s position to interim executive director with nearly the same duties. He said lawmakers intentionally designed it so Benson could continue during a transition before a new three-member commission takes over UTA by Nov. 1.
Schultz said that’s important because Benson’s contract clearly gives him his big severance only if he is terminated “without cause,” such as if his job or funding for it disappears. Otherwise receiving the severance is murky.
Amid questioning by the board, Benson said he did not want to continue in the post because of some changes — including no longer being able to hire and fire top executives, not being able to approve large contracts without board approval and having control of the agency spread among many people instead of just him.
With that, Schultz said after the meeting, “It was clear that Mr. Benson didn’t want to be here after the legislation was passed.” And if he had resigned, “he wouldn’t have gotten his severance package. That would have been a more appropriate way to handle it.”
Benson’s contract called for a severance worth nine months of 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.
UTA board Chairman Greg Bell, a former lieutenant governor, said it is unclear whether Benson would have received the severance if he resigned instead of being fired. “Only a judge and jury are going to tell you,” he said.
Lincoln Hobbs, attorney for Benson, said his client would likely sue if the board did not repeat its firing of Benson and put his severance in question — and argued that SB136 had eliminated his position, so he was essentially removed without cause.
He warned that if the board did not repeat the earlier firing of Benson, “It is likely there would be litigation. I think the litigation would be divisive, would be expensive and would be destructive to this agency.”
Board member Troy Walker, who is also Draper’s mayor, said that in the earlier meeting, board members were told that Benson’s firing was required by the new law and they had little information about his contract and the severance package.
He urged the board not to merely repeat the earlier firing, but instead accept Benson’s resignation and give him the severance package anyway in recognition that it would avoid expensive litigation. He complained the board had no legal advice on how valid Benson’s case may be.
The board, however, opted to repeat its earlier firing of Benson in the 6-5 vote.
Bell told the board that Benson was probably wise to negotiate a severance package and likely deserved it for accepting a promotion he did not apply for in 2016. He said the position is “politically vulnerable,” and UTA’s previous two chiefs had been pushed out after reaching lucrative negotiated settlements.
Michael Allegra, who retired in 2016, ended up receiving a severance worth at least $489,788, according to Utah’s transparency website. That package included retaining him for six months as a special adviser to the UTA board.
He almost received another $375,000 on top of that. In the wake of an immunity deal for UTA with federal prosecutors, the agency last year disclosed that it found deals promising Allegra that big bonus upon retirement. Agency officials were able to cancel it with his agreement as he resigned.
When Allegra’s predecessor, John Inglish, retired from overseeing daily operations of UTA in 2010, he was given the largely honorary title of CEO for two years with annual compensation of $364,000 a year. He also spent those two years traveling worldwide representing UTA at industry conferences. Inglish was also given a pension of $200,000 a year.