UTA’s federal watchdog says agency mostly cleaned up scandals — but some worries remain

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA bus in Downtown Salt Lake City, Aug. 6, 2019.

As part of a deal to avoid federal prosecution, the Utah Transit Authority hired an outside monitor last year to act as a watchdog on whether the agency lives up to its promised reforms.

In its first report, the monitor said Wednesday that UTA — as recently restructured by the Legislature — has largely erased problems that led to past scandals over high executive pay, extensive international travel, sweetheart deals with developers and a lack of transparency.

But it raised concerns that confusing powers given to the UTA Advisory Council of local government officials could reignite problems. And it worries that an exodus of in-house attorneys drained the agency of key institutional knowledge and displaced a key reformer.

“Not that more work can’t be done, but we believe progress has been made,” said Rees Morgan with Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, the firm hired as the monitor. “We were very impressed with the current UTA personnel. ... They all seem to care very much about establishing ethical management.”

He presented a 50-page report with initial findings to the newly restructured UTA board. Here is a look at some key areas:

Executive salaries: The report said UTA now bases salaries for executives on surveys of people with similar positions in government, transit and nonprofit agencies — but not businesses. It said that largely eliminates problems that, for example, gave former UTA chief Mike Allegra compensation of $402,187 in 2013, including a $30,000 bonus.

In those days, the report said, “A small group of senior officials at UTA who were theoretically supposed to act as checks on one another instead allowed each other to secure lucrative compensation packages with the agency that were not tied to any objective measure of merit, fairness or public interest.”

The agency just hired Carolyn Gonot as its new executive director at a base salary of $221,423 a year.

The new report did raise one new red flag, however. It said the agency has murky rules about which officials involved in procurement may accept meals, training or other gifts — and said that should be resolved.

• Travel: Reforms such as requiring approval in a public meeting for any international travel have nearly eliminated such trips, the report said. In recent years since that policy, it said the agency had allowed only three international trips for employees, and they were to Canada.

In comparison, former UTA CEO John Inglish in 2.5 years ending in 2012 went to Belgium, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Spain (twice), Switzerland, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and 17 U.S. cities. He averaged 1.6 out-of-state trips a month. Others also traveled extensively.

The report called such earlier travel “a personnel and cultural failing,” and said “UTA has made significant changes in personnel and culture since 2016. These are positives for the agency.”

Developer deals: The report noted that UTA last year pulled back many contracts for problematic “transit-oriented developments,” and created a new process with more checks and balances to award contracts and choose projects based on merit instead of whatever officials preferred.

Past problems with such developments included prepaying a developer to construct a parking garage that he never built, giving what the state found were too-generous contracts to developers who had ties to old board members, and some former board members seeking to invest in projects they had voted to approve.

“UTA has made great strides in addressing systemic issues that led to problematic TOD [transit-oriented development] conduct,” the report said.

Transparency: The new three-member, full-time UTA board created by the Legislature may be going overboard to comply with state open meetings laws, the monitor said, after the former 16-member, part-time board created controversy by violating it on occasion.

“The upshot is that the trustees hold open meetings whenever information needs to be provided to or discussed among more than one trustee,” the report said. While it applauds “UTA’s current commitment to public transparency,” it said it could chill dialogue needed for daily oversight of the agency.

• Concern about advisory council powers: The monitor says too much confusion exists about powers given to a nine-member UTA Advisory Council — and whether it is merely advisory, or has real power over such things as approving capital projects, transit-oriented developments and station plans. It has taken on power currently to approve such projects.

The monitor blames uncertainty about what is allowed on murky language in legislation that created it. It also worries that part-time membership by mayors and others appointed by local governments mirrors too much the old 16-member UTA board disbanded by the Legislature — and even has several people who served on that board.

The monitor worries the structure could allow the council to be swayed too much by one strong personality. Also, it may also be able to wield control over the main governor-appointed three-member UTA board because it sets their salaries — and put it at $129,000 each, meaning scores of UTA officials are actually paid more than their bosses.

“We’re not sure ... whether that is actually a problem,” Morgan said, adding that the monitor will watch it.

• Worry about attorney exodus: The monitor noted concern that UTA’s six in-house attorneys all left the agency after recent restricting legislation gave responsibility to represent UTA to the state attorney general’s office.

Even though those attorneys were offered jobs with the attorney general, the report said they left because they would have had to take pay cuts to remain. Meanwhile, the monitor said the attorney general has replaced the six departing attorneys with two lawyers — and it is concerned whether that is enough and whether they have enough specialized background.

The monitor was especially concerned about the loss of former UTA General Counsel Jayme Blakesley, saying the deal between prosecutors and UTA that led to creation of a monitor had portrayed him as a pusher for reform — but his position was eliminated by the Legislature when it restructured the agency.

It noted that Blakesley had done such things as cancel problematic transit-oriented developments, and managed to cancel contracts on what the agency figured were inappropriate bonuses of $475,000 to former General Counsel Bruce Jones and $375,000 to Allegra.

Blakesley now is a partner in the Holladay law firm Hayes Godfrey Bell, where he specializes in transportation, complex negotiations, investigations and employment law.

The monitor said it will watch the situation and whether it views legal representation as adequate.