To rebuild trust in the scandal-tainted Utah Transit Authority, the Legislature this year created a new full-time, three-member commission to replace the agency’s part-time, 16-member board — often seen as a rubber stamp for agency executives.
But that new board could have some very familiar faces.
Two of the four people nominated for potential service so far by local counties are members of the criticized current board: Draper Mayor Troy Walker and Davis County Commissioner P. Bret Millburn.
That creates a debate about whether the new board truly will be “a transformational force to restore trust in public transportation,” a qualification sought by Gov. Gary Herbert’s office when it outlined desired qualities of nominess.
“It would be optimal to have an entirely new board” with all new members to help restore trust, said Christopher Stout, president of the Utah Transit Riders Union, a watchdog group.
But he added, “I don’t necessarily have a problem with either of the board members” who have been nominated — because they have favored reforms more than most on the old board.
Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, the House sponsor of SB136, which ordered restructuring of UTA this year, said he also has no problem with Millburn and Walker if Herbert chooses to appoint one or both of them.
“They were a couple of the people pushing for reforms,” he said. “That makes me feel pretty comfortable with those two.”
He added, “Millburn was the on the [legislative] task force that came up with the new structure” in SB136. “Both of those came to me and told me about problems and had ideas about how to structure it. I’m not pushing them, but if that is who the governor chooses, I’d feel comfortable.”
And if things don’t work out well, Schultz pointed out that the new law “gives the governor the flexibility to make a change midstream, firing board members — if we have to — to get it right.”
SB136 came after years of controversy at UTA, including state audits criticizing it for such things as high executive pay, extensive international travel for past executives, sweetheart deals for developers and secretive actions.
The bill allows Salt Lake County to propose two or more nominees for one slot on the new commission. The County Council proposed Walker and Laynee Jones, former project manager of the old Mountain Accord, which later transformed into the Central Wasatch Commission to plan development of canyons.
Davis and Weber counties, in consultation with Box Elder County, were allowed to make nominations for another slot. They put forward Millburn (who abstained on voting for himself) and Bountiful City Council member Beth Holbrook, who is also president of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
Utah County, in consultation with Tooele County, is allowed to make nominations for the final slot. The Utah County Commission is interviewing 10 applicants this week, and by law must make its nominations by July 31.
Justin Harding, chief of staff to Herbert, wrote a letter to the Salt Lake County Council outlining the sorts of qualifications the governor seeks in nominees.
He sought “highly qualified professionals,” with such qualities as “advanced education,” “extensive experience in executive level business management,” training “in large-scale asset management,” and expertise in “finance, economics, accounting or law.” The new law set the salary for the job at no more than $150,000 a year.
Among the nominees — all best known as local officials — Walker is an attorney; Jones has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering; Holbrook is the public sector manager for Waste Management, and a former realtor with a bachelor’s degree in political science; and Millburn has a bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in political science.
SB136 itself sets only broad qualifications for new commission members, saying each should be “a qualified executive with technical and administrative experience and training appropriate for the position.”
Salt Lake County Council member Richard Snelgrove cast the lone dissenting vote against Walker and Jones, saying they did not meet the qualifications outlined by the governor’s office. “I find them lacking in having the skill set needed to be transformational at UTA,” he said after the vote. “We fumbled on this one.”
Walker said in an interview that Snelgrove told him that he “wished some retired executive from a Fortune 500 company would apply. I said, ‘Well, that would be awesome. But none of those people applied.’”
“Frankly, it’s not a sexy job," Walker added. "It’s risky. You’re going to work for the governor at his pleasure…. And you’re going to try to build public trust in UTA, and that’s not going to be an easy job…. It’s not a loved agency.”
Walker said he applied because he wants to restore trust in the agency and help it provide better service. “That’s the No. 1 job: build back the trust of the public, at the same time make the service better and more efficient.”
He said if appointed, he would not resign as mayor of Draper, a part-time position, but would give up his work as an attorney. He does not see also serving as mayor as a conflict, even though his city has pushed — as have others — for expanded UTA service.
Walker said serving as a mayor helps him see what other cities and areas want. “We [in Draper] have a lot of transit now, which we’ve enjoyed and its been a great asset to our community. I want to see that get out to Herriman, South Jordan, Riverton, down into Utah County, better service up in the north.”
Walker said he also does not see being a current board member as a disadvantage.
“I actually understand how UTA works,” he said. “You don’t want to go in there and blow up everything. Some changes need to be made, but you need an understanding that there are a lot of good things UTA does. You don’t need to disrupt that.”
He adds, “I supported the governance change 100 percent. I did not think it was tenable for UTA to stay in its current form and get back the public trust.”
Walker said the current 16-member, part-time board is so big it is difficult to move enough votes to make change. “It’s easy for the agency to do what the agency wants, and you have the board following it. That’s the way it’s been. I think going to this three-member commission, there will be a lot more ability for people to manage it.”
Millburn also said being a current UTA board member “is a benefit,” and that he and Walker “have been very engaged in trying to move the agency forward and have been leaders in working with the Legislature on these reforms.”
Millburn is leaving office at the end of the year. “It’s potentially good timing for a change I was expecting anyway,” he said.
“I and Trustee Walker have a good idea of what needs to be accomplished, and what the expectations are” because of work on the law to restructure the agency, he said. “There’s great potential in moving transit forward.”
The new law requires the governor to appoint members of the new board by Aug. 31, and for the new board to take over UTA by Nov. 1.
Paul Edwards, spokesman for the governor, said as soon as he receives the nominations formally, Herbert “will launch an extensive review of the qualities that the nominees would bring to the board.”
He added, “In addition to his desire to appoint board members with a track record of strong professional leadership, Gov. Herbert is keen to appoint board members without potential conflicts of interest. UTA has taken large strides to regain the trust of the public and state lawmakers. Building upon that trajectory of increased trust is vital for UTA’s future.”
Edwards also said, “Until the governor has had the opportunity to review thoroughly each nominee, he will not comment on the relative strength of the individual nominees.”