The Utah Transit Authority said Wednesday that it will not appeal a federal ruling that it illegally fired a whistleblower for warning the agency that it was violating safety rules.
That worker, J. Michael Clara, said 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.
However, the administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Labor did conclude that Clara was wrongly fired and that he enjoyed whistleblower status.
UTA spokesman Carl Arky said, “Although we strongly disagree with the judge’s findings, after a legal review of the decision, UTA has chosen not to appeal.”
The announcement came just after a deadline passed for the agency to appeal, if it so choose.
The decision is good news for Clara.
UTA was ordered by the administrative law judge 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.
“On a personal level, I’m glad to hear that,” Clara said. “As a citizen, I’m disappointed. UTA’s statement tells me they still have blind spots. Instead of turning over a new leaf and vowing to do better, this indicates that’s not the case.”
Clara said UTA has made a formal offer to reinstate him, but UTA’s statement that it strongly disagrees with the judge gives him pause as he weighs whether to accept it — or opt for some alternate payments instead.
“They are still condoning unethical behavior to get rid of someone just because they are doing their job and upholding federal rules,” he said.
In a 200-plus-page ruling earlier this month, administrative law judge Lee J. Romero Jr. 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 of 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.
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.
The measure is being implemented in Salt Lake County without voter approval.
Clara also tussled with his bosses after UTA publicly asserted that Donald Brown, 61, was struck and killed by a TRAX train in October 2015. 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 judge wrote he believed Clara’s testimony that he told his supervisor that gaps in such crossings were too wide to meet federal standards, but that, as Clara said, 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.