Two new UTA Board nominees vow to restore trust; Gov. Herbert and Utah County leaders battle over third board seat

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) A TRAX train turns the corner on 200 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City, Thursday, April 26, 2018.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s two nominees to a new commission that will run the scandal-tarnished Utah Transit Authority vowed Monday to restore trust in it — including promising transparency and avoiding big executive bonuses that caused controversy.

Meanwhile, Herbert is fighting with the Utah County Commission about who should be the third and final nominee to the new UTA board, scheduled to take over the agency by Nov. 1.

State law required the county commission to pick at least two people, from whom Herbert would nominate one for the UTA spot. He rejected both and wants more names. But county commissioners say that violates state law because they argue Herbert must pick one of the two names they forwarded, and they are considering challenging his action in court.

If the full Utah Senate confirms Herbert’s other two nominees, all their votes would need to be unanimous for any action to occur until that third member is appointed and confirmed.

On Monday, a Senate committee endorsed and sent to the full Senate Herbert’s other two nominees: Carlton Christensen, now director of Salt Lake County’s Department of Regional Transportation, and Bountiful City Council member Beth Holbrook.

The vote for Christensen was unanimous. The vote for Holbrook was 3-1, with Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, dissenting.

Harper, who wrote the new law to restructure UTA, said Holbrook lacks the professional qualifications he believes are necessary “to make the new board an instrument of change.”

Besides serving on the Bountiful City Council, Holbrook is the past president of the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the public sector manager for Waste Management, a recycling and trash hauling company. Harper said lawmakers hoped for people with advanced degrees, or extensive experience in areas such as finance.

Holbrook and Christensen vowed in their confirmation hearing to work hard to restore trust in UTA — and said they have had some previous experience in that because of scandals faced by other agencies they helped to oversee.

For example, Christensen was a member of the Salt Lake City Council when former Mayor Deedee Corradini was caught in the “giftgate” scandal for soliciting donations to help her out of personal business debt.

In response, “We put in place one of the most stringent ethics ordinances that surpassed state requirements that made sure something of that nature didn’t happen again,” Christensen said.

Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune Carlton Christensen, District 1 Representative in the Salt Lake City Council, speaks at a meeting of the Fairpark Community Council at the Northwest Community Center on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. Christensen served on the council for 16 years.

Holbrook was on the board of the Utah League of Cities and Towns last year when its former executive director, Ken Bullock, resigned when a state audit said he charged $57,000 in personal expenses to the league’s credit card — and it questioned $130,000 in other expenses.

“Financial challenges and restoring trust were the key things that we focused on as the board,” she said. “We realized that you have to have transparency” in actions — something she vowed to also push at UTA, if confirmed.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Beth Holbrook speaks out against HB 175, the oversight committee creation bill, during the House Government Operations Standing Committee, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.

Christensen also vowed transparency at UTA, an agency that sometimes has been criticized for secrecy and closed meetings. He promised that discussions and decisions “will be not only in an open and public meeting, but thoroughly vetted and discussed” openly.

Holbrook, amid questioning, also vowed to generally oppose executive bonuses — after big ones created past controversy — and called for compensation studies to ensure UTA officials are paid appropriately and are not overpaid.

Holbrook and Christensen said restoring public trust is a top priority. “It’s going to take some time,” Christensen said, adding that building a solid record of good service will finally bring that.

Holbrook said she would work to restore trust by improving communication, putting the agency on firm financial footing.

She raised some concerns when she said she would resign all her current positions except for continuing to serve for a year on the League of Cities and Towns board — arguing that could help mayors reach out to her about UTA concerns.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, disagreed. She urged that new board members come in with no outside ties — and said cities could reach out to Holbrook without needing to go through the league. Holbrook then agreed to resign from the league board if lawmakers see it as a problem.

Meanwhile, Herbert still has not nominated a third member to the new UTA board — where, by law, the Utah County Commission, after consulting with Tooele County, nominates at least two people for one slot.

The Utah County Commission nominated Pleasant Grove City Council member Ben Stanley, who is also an attorney, and former Cedar Hills Council member Rob Crawley, owner of a consulting firm.

“The governor sent us a letter saying he is rejecting them,” said Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee. The pair had attracted opposition — including former Cedar Hills Mayor Gary Gygi saying in the press that the pair were little more than political allies of Lee and questioning whether they had the required skills for the job.

Lee and Commission Chairman Nathan Ivie said they believe Herbert is not following state law — both by missing his deadline to make nominations and by refusing to move forward one of the names they sent.

“If he can reject names until we give him one that he wants, why are we even involved in this process?” Lee said. He said he opposes sending any more names and said the county commission is considering court action to force Herbert to use one of its nominees.

Ivie said the commission, in consultation with Tooele County, is looking at other options, too — including sending the names of others who had applied previously or opening up the process again.

But Ivie said he believes Herbert should move forward one of the two names already sent. "Ironically, I’m saying that as someone who voted against the two names we sent,” said Ivie, who said he felt other applicants were more qualified.

Herbert’s office issued a brief written comment on the issue. “The governor has requested new nominations from the Utah and Tooele county commissions. He is confident that he is acting within his constitutional and statutory authority.”

Harper also said he believes the governor is properly following the law — and need not nominate someone who lacks his confidence.

He noted that Herbert also initially disliked nominations made by Salt Lake County and asked for more names — which included Christensen. “I think he’s essentially trying to do the same thing in Utah County,” Harper said.