A new federal ruling says the Utah Transit Authority illegally fired a transit planner for warning the agency that it was violating safety rules.
That worker, J. Michael Clara, says UTA cut corners to speed work on bus stop amenities as it tried to generate positive publicity just before the 2015 Proposition 1 vote on whether to raise transit taxes. UTA has denied that, and the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain the claimed connection to the election.
Clara also alleges UTA bosses were upset with him for saying its TRAX crossings do not meet federal standards, a problem that may have led to the death of a man whose girlfriend says his wheelchair became wedged in a gap at one before he was hit.
UTA was ordered to offer to reinstate Clara, who worked for 20 years as a transit planner, and to pay damages plus his back wages, benefits, interest and attorney fees — all of which Clara figures amount to just under $300,000.
UTA issued a brief response: "UTA is disappointed with the judge’s decision, as it’s our position that Mr. Clara was appropriately terminated for cause. UTA is currently reviewing the decision in its entirety and evaluating our appeal options.”
UTA “unlawfully discriminated against Mr. Clara,” wrote Lee J. Romero Jr., an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Labor, contending his actions made him a protected whistleblower.
Clara said Monday that he isn’t sure he wants to return to UTA — and it may hinge on final restructuring of the scandal-tainted agency ordered by the Legislature this year, including creating a new three-member commission to oversee it.
“It’s one thing to change the governance structure at UTA, but if we want real change, we have to look at middle management and the culture that allows this kind of behavior to flourish,” he said.
“The question for me is whom am I working for — because I am not going to go back and work for the same unethical people,” he added. “They fabricated stuff in order to get rid of me. It’s concerning to me that kind of culture is there.”
In a 200-plus-page ruling, the administrative law judge wrote that he did not find credible UTA officials’ testimony that they properly fired Clara for “job abandonment” for failing to report to work after a two-week vacation.
He sided with Clara, who said he ended up working the first week of his scheduled vacation in November 2015, so he arranged to extend it a week — but returned to find he was fired. He presented emails and testimony to argue it was punishment for raising safety concerns a month earlier.
Clara ran into trouble in October 2015, when he asserted that $300,000 worth of work to install new bus stops and shelters along busy 200 South in Salt Lake City did not meet requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act, did not measure up to other federal and local safety standards and was done despite his objections.
As examples, Clara said, a shelter was placed where no bus stop technically existed; street parking was still allowed where buses would need to pick up riders at other stops; and problems prevented access for disabled passengers at several stops.
Bosses were upset at his objections, Clara said, and told him that quick installation was needed to help promote Prop 1. And they were furious that Clara copied his objections throughout UTA — including to its civil rights and public safety departments.
One email from a superior cited in the ruling said, “Before I unleash on Michael [Clara], I am going to let you [Clara’s immediate boss] take care of him, asap. With him copying everyone and their dog on this email — that is not cool…. Let me know what happens, otherwise this will need to be escalated quickly…. Let’s talk before you strangle this guy."
Clara said in an interview Monday that UTA executives “were trying to make improvements prior to Proposition 1 to tell people, ‘Look, this is what we can do if we get more money.’”
The ruling said not enough evidence was presented to prove that assertion, but it did not matter in the case. It cited testimony by Matt Sibul, then UTA’s chief planning officer, that said, “Proposition 1 was one aspect that we, of course, wanted to demonstrate excellence at UTA and finish a project up that was well utilized.”
But Sibul and others testified the project had been planned long before Prop 1, and they were rushing to pour concrete before winter weather hit and to use some federal grant money that had to be spent quickly.
Prop 1 failed that year in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties amid concerns about the agency, including high UTA executive pay, extensive international travel and sweetheart deals with developers. The measure passed in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties.
Of note, the Legislature this year enacted a law that allows counties that did not pass Prop 1 in 2015 to enact the tax hike now without voter approval. Salt Lake County decided to do so after most of its cities passed resolutions supporting it. Utah County is proposing to do so.
Clara also tussled with bosses in October 2015 about UTA’s public assertions after Donald Brown, 61, was struck and killed by a TRAX train. UTA said Brown was rushing to beat a train. Brown’s girlfriend said his wheelchair became wedged at the crossing, but UTA told news reporters that the crossing complied with code.
The new ruling said the judge believed Clara’s testimony that he told his boss that gaps in such crossings were too wide to meet federal standards, but his boss told him not to raise it because “either you are in hot water or you have created enough … attention to yourself on these kinds of things, so do not even bring it up.”
Clara did raise the issue and was fired the next month.
Since his firing, Clara has worked the past year and a half as a community organizer for Crossroads Urban Center.
Clara is a former Salt Lake City School Board member, who was also known for sparring with colleagues there — including suing them for possible violations of open-meetings laws. He once even dressed as the “Frito Bandito” to protest board moves he said hurt minorities, including assigning a police officer to watch him in meetings.