When Unified Fire Authority Chief Dan Peterson took over the agency he says there “wasn’t a soul” who wanted it to stay as it was.
The State Auditor’s Office had published a scathing audit that month, January 2017, revealing the agency’s top administrators had received exorbitant bonuses, been reimbursed for personal vacations attached to official travel, purchased electronic equipment for personal use and hired close family members outside UFA rules.
“I saw a board that was a little bit embarrassed maybe about what happened and wanted to do something about it,” Peterson says. “And through the conversation, the audit actually gave me a wonderful blueprint to move through and make the corrections necessary.”
The Unified Fire Authority operates fire and emergency services throughout most of Salt Lake County under contract with individual cities. It has been back in the spotlight in recent days after a more than yearlong investigation by the attorney general’s office ended with no criminal charges, concluding it would be tough to convict those responsible. But state investigators verified “troubling" behavior first identified by auditors and painted a sharper picture of the culture that allowed those abuses of power to thrive.
Peterson says the Unified Fire Authority today is a different agency from the compromised one described in the attorney general’s 196-page report.
The chief says he and the board have been quietly making changes in the year and a half since the damning audit was published. One big one is that he eliminated the bonus program that in the previous five years had showered a combined $400,000 on four top executives.
“Obviously the poisoned nature of the term ‘incentive’ at that point in time was a great opportunity to just say, ‘Let’s do this different,’ ” Peterson says.
Under the new system, employees receive awards and recognition rather than money, Peterson says. When he finds out someone has done something that in the past might have qualified them for an incentive, he sends a personal note to their house with a coin of thanks for their service.
“I’d rather people do it for the feeling and the job than because they might get a $1,000 check, in essence.”
Peterson says there’s no doubt the culture has improved and the board is more engaged than ever. He’s the first to admit, though, that doesn’t guarantee the abuses of power that occurred could never happen again. That’s not his mark for success.
“I think the key is how quick does it get discovered and fixed?” he says. And with a more watchful board, financial reviews and audits, “it surely wouldn’t happen long. And it would be dealt with swiftly.”
‘We operate with the public’s money’
The UFA board will discuss at its meeting this week whether to try to recover at least $370,000 in public funds that state auditors had concluded former chief Michael Jensen and ex-Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott improperly received. The payouts included sizable severance checks to the two — $93,000 to Jensen and $42,000 to Scott — even though they resigned abruptly in 2016 under a cloud of suspicion.
A civil lawsuit would likely be the only way to go after the money.
“We operate with the public’s money, and we absolutely believe that that is held sacred in how we manage that,” Peterson says. “We have a responsibility to how we spend that money — it doesn’t end just because there weren’t criminal charges.”
Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle, the current chairman of the UFA board, says he expects members will meet with the board’s lawyer on Tuesday in a closed session to review the attorney general’s report and determine the likelihood of success in a civil suit.
Dahle says it would be “premature” to comment on his stance on the matter prior to the board’s meeting with legal counsel.
“If we determine that public funds have been misappropriated, I think we have an obligation to see if we can retrieve those,” he says. “But it has to be weighed against the possibility of getting those funds back and what the cost is going to be to retrieve them.”
Dahle also is joining calls for Jensen, a five-term Salt Lake County councilman, to resign from his position on the state’s Inland Port Authority Board, which has been criticized in recent weeks for a lack of public accountability. Most of its deliberations seem to be occurring in closed-door committee meetings.
Given the information in the attorney general’s report, Dahle called Jensen’s continued service on that board “questionable.”
“Speaking not as a UFA chair but as a board member that went through this really unpleasant situation, and based off of the information that is contained in the A.G.’s report, I find it really shocking and disappointing that Mike Jensen has been appointed to the Inland Port Authority board when it’s been known all along that he was under investigation,” Dahle says.
Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning organization that advocates for government transparency, and The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board, which is independent from its news reporting, have also called on Jensen to resign.