Michael Clara: A new UTA needs a new management culture

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune A UTA supervisor directs TRAX riders to a bus to get them to the next stop, as TRAX trains were not operating in downtown Salt Lake City, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017.

I am encouraged by the legislative requirements that will bring long-overdue organizational changes to the Utah Transit Authority. No doubt, we can all agree with Gov. Gary Herbert’s chief of staff, who recently stated: “Our transportation future must include a pivotal role for transit. However, that will require confidence in and public trust of the UTA Board of Trustees and their administration.”

In the coming months, we will see substantive changes in the governance structure of UTA with the installation of three new commissioners and a nine-member advisory board. I submit that for UTA as an organization to reclaim the “public trust,” we must see substantive changes occur on the administration (management) level as well.

An overarching challenge for the new commissioners will be to change the UTA culture that now places a higher value on loyalty to the organizational hierarchy over loyalty toward first principles. These principles include transparency, integrity, accountability and a constant readiness to reform in whatever way necessary — no matter whose personal interests within the UTA organizational chart may be affected.

For example, last month, I received the long-awaited ruling on my federal whistleblower case, thus ending my long, grueling and, at times, stressful two-year battle with UTA. In the 200-page ruling, Judge Lee J. Romero provides us a unique insight into how current UTA managers operate:

"Respondent’s [UTA] proffered reason for terminating Complainant [Michael Clara], that is, job abandonment, is incoherent and inconsistent, and thus not worthy of belief. … Furthermore, the … evidence indicates Respondent did not in good faith believe Complainant violated its policies, but instead relied on the alleged violation in bad faith as evidenced by the inconsistent and incredible testimony of Mr. [Chris] Chesnut and Mr. [Matt] Sibul. … Accordingly, I find and conclude Respondent’s proffered reasons for Complainant’s termination are pretext for unlawful retaliation. … I find and conclude Respondent unlawfully discriminated against Mr. Clara because of his protected activity.”

In response, UTA unabashedly declared that it was “disappointed with the judge’s decision, as it’s our position that Mr. Clara was appropriately terminated for cause.”

In making that public declaration, UTA is impugning my motives and integrity while asserting that the good of the organization involves unyielding loyalty to the hierarchy as it currently stands.

Why do we continue to focus on UTA’s collective outcomes at the expense of evaluating the actions of individual managers within the organization? At the time of my termination, Matt Sibul was UTA’s chief planning officer. Today, he remains at UTA as director of government relations.

We must not lose sight of the fact that these insights into UTA management come with a financial price tag. At one point in this process, I hired Austin B. Egan of the Stavros Law firm. His bio says that he has “a reputation with clients and adversaries as a tenacious and skilled litigator.” I quickly learned that was a spot-on description of him and, in my case, it took a litigator of his caliber to unmask the many amoral tactics deployed by those in UTA’s Planning, Capital Development, Human Resources and Legal departments.

Accordingly, citizens and public officials alike should demand to know, where is the accountability for the perverse actions of those who perpetuated my termination from UTA? I recommend that the newly appointed commissioners give the principled, centered employees remaining at UTA a chance to act as co-creators in UTA’s reform efforts. Scrap UTA’s in-house Human Resource Department. Replace it with the state Department of Human Resource Management, thus giving employees career service status, which provides some measure of protection from the retaliatory actions of unethical managers remaining at UTA.

Today, we make a mockery of reform efforts to regain the “public’s trust” when employees like Matt Sibul are still employed at UTA and employees like me are not.

Judge Romero succinctly illustrates the irony: “Lastly, Mr. Sibul’s decision to affirm Complainant’s termination on appeal for ‘job abandonment’ is also distressing, given Mr. Sibul’s testimony that he considered Complainant worked for Respondent for 20 years, and that Complainant was a dedicated employee ‘who cared very deeply about his job.’”

Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo Michael Clara poses for a portrait in his home in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.

Michael Clara is a community organizer at Crossroads Urban Center and former transit planner at the Utah Transit Authority.