UTA names its first female executive director after a 6-month national search

(Photo courtesy of UTA) Carolyn Gonot, the new executive director of UTA.

The Utah Transit Authority selected a new executive director Monday: Carolyn Gonot, who has been serving as the chief planning and engineering officer of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California.

She will be the first woman in the top job at UTA and the agency’s first replacement top administrator not promoted from within the organization. This hire comes after the scandal-tainted agency was restructured by the Legislature and after a six-month nationwide search.

Gonot will be taking a pay cut to accept the job. Her wages last year at VTA were $281,645 in high-cost-of-living Silicon Valley, according to California’s transparency website. The UTA board plans to pay her a base salary of $221,423 a year in a three-year contract — about a fifth less than the $273,981 a year former UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson was paid in 2017, his last full year.

“Service is the key to what we do,” Gonot said in a written statement. “I’ll be focused on advancing the board’s vision to ensure the agency is aligned with the anticipated growth along the Wasatch Front and the transit service needs of the communities UTA serves.”

Carlton Christensen, chairman of the UTA board, praised her.

“Gonot’s breadth of experience in the transit industry is extensive, ranging from service and program planning to managing and implementing major capital projects,” he said. “Her decades of transit experience give her an understanding of the entire transit agency, and she has the leadership qualities to ensure UTA continues to improve its service to the community."

Gonot has worked since 1996 at the VTA in San Jose. That includes five years as its chief engineering and program delivery officer, a role that included delivery of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Silicon Valley Extension as well as light rail, bus rapid transit, pedestrian, bicycle and facilities projects.

Also at VTA, she held the positions of chief development officer and deputy director of the congestion management program.

Christensen said Gonot’s experience will serve her well in a job, which after agency restructuring, is designed to focus on stewardship, service and people. He added that dealing with growth in San Jose and California’s Silicon Valley will give her insight to help handle growth here.

“She understands the pressures of growth on a transit agency and the need to continually work to align UTA’s services with the needs of the community,” Christensen said.

Gonot has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Pennsylvania State University.

Gonot is scheduled to assume her duties at UTA on Aug. 19. She will replace Steve Meyers, the interim executive director, who was elevated to that position and postponed his retirement while the board searched for a permanent director.

The UTA board is expected to formally approve her appointment at its regular meeting Wednesday, including setting her salary and compensation package.

Her proposed contract shows she is an at-will employee who may be replaced anytime for any reason by the board.

Besides her base salary of $221,423 (which allows possible annual pay increases), her proposed three-year contract also requires UTA to pay the equivalent of 15.5% of her salary into a 401(a) retirement program, and match $2 for every $3 she invests into a retirement savings plan.

UTA will pay to move her to Utah and cover three months of temporary housing (up to $7,500). It will also pay her a $6,000 lump sum to help with relocating. She must repay portions of those resettlement and moving expenses if she leaves before the end of her contract.

Controversial high executive salaries in the past were among the reasons the Legislature chose to restructure UTA.

Benson, the last permanent executive director, also left amid allegations that he improperly received a big severance package, worth perhaps $282,000.

When the Legislature reorganized the agency, it eliminated the positions of president, CEO and general manager, all of which were held by Benson. The former UTA board said it had no authority to employ anyone in those jobs after May 8, 2018, so it fired Benson while praising his work.

UTA said Benson received a severance package that was required by contract when he became UTA president in 2016 — equal to nine months of his salary and insurance benefits. Utah’s transparency website showed Benson received $376,000 in such compensation in 2017.

But Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who helped write legislation seeking to reform UTA, said it did not require firing Benson and that he could have continued as the interim executive director. Schultz criticized the severance as improper.