The Utah Transit Authority is quietly attempting to reverse legislation that disbands its in-house legal team, telling lawmakers that a mandate to use the Utah attorney general’s office instead would cost $87,000 more annually.
But emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open-records request show that the attorney general’s office thinks UTA’s numbers are wrong and says the change would actually save taxpayers $193,000 a year.
Emails and interviews also show that in either case, current UTA attorneys may continue to provide specialized services, but if the attorney general’s office hires them as it intends, their salaries would have to be cut by perhaps a third to conform with state pay schedules.
Two weeks ago, Steve Meyer, UTA’s interim executive director, met with Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, and Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper — authors of a UTA-focused law enacted this year. He asked them to consider scrapping the mandate to fully transition to using A.G.'s office counsel by July 1, 2019.
Meyer presented a spreadsheet arguing that the ordered move would cost UTA an extra $86,792 a year — or 9 percent more overall for legal services.
Harper and Schultz asked if the attorney general’s office had reviewed and verified those numbers. Meyer said it had not, and the lawmakers said it should.
The Salt Lake Tribune filed an open-records request for communication between UTA and the A.G.’s office about those numbers. The A.G.’s office made what it says are corrections, and it says its services actually would save taxpayers about $193,000 annually — cutting UTA’s overall legal costs by 16 percent a year.
“It appears our support staff was counted, but not UTA’s,” Assistant Attorney General Mark Burns emailed Meyer. “Other overhead besides employee benefits appears to have been excluded” in UTA’s favor.
Burns said he did not know where many of UTA’s estimates for the cost of attorney general oversight came from, but he said they were too high.
The biggest difference between the two sets of numbers came because UTA had eliminated from comparisons the $198,536 annual salary of former UTA General Counsel Jayme Blakesley, plus his substantial benefits, saying the position will disappear.
“Leaving out Blakesley’s salary excludes the management oversight that was in place before the bill passed,” Burns wrote. “It would seem that during this next period of federal monitoring, management oversight would be just as important as before and possibly more so.”
Part of an immunity agreement between UTA and federal prosecutors investigating possible wrongdoing by former UTA board members and officials requires that a federal monitor oversee agency operations for three years to ensure that the agency adheres to pledged reforms.
Meyer responded in an email, saying that Blakesley’s position was no longer required and that the Legislature wanted it abolished.
“We feel that the UTA legal team can be adequately managed by (1) reporting directly to the Executive Director and (2) leadership from the Managing Attorney (Lisa Bohman),” Meyer added.
He also argued that his numbers for oversight and other support services were accurate and based on numbers provided by the state.
The Tribune on Friday interviewed Meyer together with Daniel Burton, chief of policy and legislative affairs for Attorney General Sean Reyes. Both sides are sticking to their own numbers for now, but they are negotiating to try to close the gap. Meyer says he is using his version as he builds UTA’s 2019 budget.
“At the end of the day, we want to work together. We are coming to this as friendly parties and hope we can work it out amicably,” Burton said.
The attorney general’s office takes no position on whether it should take over legal representation for UTA, Burton said, adding that that is a policy decision for lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Meyer said, “I want to keep the existing staff ... whether they are UTA employees or AG employees.” He said that would include five attorneys when the UTA counsel’s office is fully staffed; three are there now because others recently left.
Burton said the A.G.’s office has “been trying as much as possible” to keep the current UTA attorneys on board and possibly hire them when the full transition is made.
“They have some expertise that it would take time for us to learn, and it’s easier to keep good attorneys in place,” Burton said.
However, documents obtained show those attorneys would be forced to take significant pay cuts to fit within state salary schedules used by the A.G.’s office.
The current senior managing counsel would see her salary slashed from $142,771 to $87,755, emails show. The salary of a contracts counsel would drop from $155,650 to $97,260. And pay for an assistant corporate counsel would go from $97,054 to $68,952.
UTA has been paying salaries amounting to $660,458 for its five main in-house lawyer positions, and emails show that that would drop to $441,084 — cut by a third — under state pay schedules.
If the Legislature did reverse its order that UTA use the A.G.’s office, it would be up to UTA to set salaries, Meyer and Burton said.
Current law would not allow the A.G.’s office to pay the attorneys more than in-state schedules, so exceeding that would require “a legislative solution,” Burton said.
Harper told The Tribune on Friday that he is not inclined to drop the mandate to switch legal counsel — and he said that is a matter for a soon-to-be-appointed new UTA commission to study.
Harper said he and Schultz “are not going to make any changes. It has to come from the new trustees ... and they have to be the right changes.”
His new law ordered replacing the current part-time, 16-member UTA board with a full-time, three-member commission, which is supposed to be in place on or before Nov. 1.
“They are really responsible for diving into these issues and making calls in the best interest of UTA and the public,” he said.