UTA plots big changes in series of secret meetings

Utah Transit Authority has created a new top position for General Manager John Inglish and promoted two other executives in a reorganization that was deliberated and approved entirely in secret.

The appointments - announced Thursday without any public discussion by the largely tax-funded agency - appear to violate the state's Open and Public Meetings Act, says Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City lawyer specializing in open records and open meetings law.

"If the board is meeting to discuss whether to create a new position and reorganize, that must be done in an open session," Hunt said, "so the public can hear the discussion." The same goes for voting on who fills those positions, Hunt added.

Under the reorganization, Inglish becomes UTA's chief executive officer, a newly created position that officials say will allow him to influence national transportation policy. He will retain his salary. His current compensation package, including bonuses, totals $339,179.

Michael Allegra - UTA's chief capital development officer and assistant general manager - now assumes the slot vacated by Inglish and will control all day-to-day operations and management. General Counsel Bruce Jones adds the title and duties of "president of government resources." The two retain their salaries. Total compensation for Allegra and Jones is $250,940 and $237,752, respectively.

UTA's 19-member board of directors discussed these changes in a March 24 closed-door session, then reconvened to vote publicly on a cryptic motion referring to the "organizational structure" talked about in private.

"The next matter is the organizational structural matter discussed in closed session," board member Terry Diehl said that day. "The motion is to move forward on the organizational structure as discussed."

That motion carried, paving the way for the agency's executive committee - which consists of Diehl, Board Chairman Larry Ellertson, Vice Chairman Orrin Colby Jr., and board member Michelle Baguley - to meet to finalize the plan. "The board authorized the executive committee to proceed," Colby said Thursday. "Yesterday we approved the final arrangements and that action will be ratified formally at the next board meeting [April 28]."

UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said that all of the agency's committee meetings are routinely closed to the media and public.

"The only time we open it is when there's a quorum" - at least 10 of the 19-member board, Carpenter said. "Our committees do not take official action. They make recommendations and rely on the board to take appropriate action." Contracts will not be finalized and signed, Carpenter added, until after the full board takes action.

However, UTA's news release Thursday said that the board had made these new appointments and changes would take effect immediately.

When asked if a national search should have been done for the new CEO slot, Colby said that the agency could not have found anyone better than Inglish, who has worked in the transportation industry for more than 35 years.

"There's no requirement to do a national search and we have a pretty good feel of who's out there," Colby said. "So you might say we did an informal search."

The agency's news release described Inglish's new duties as focusing "exclusively on national transit industry initiatives, to promote transit and influence national transportation policy, and to seek new federal and other funding opportunities for UTA."

Colby denied any intent to conduct the public's business in private and said the process had been cleared through UTA's legal counsel.

"At our next board meeting, members will ratify the decision,"Colby said, "and it will be aired publicly." Those who needed to be informed in advance had been, he added.

David Reymann, a media attorney who works with Hunt at the firm of Parr Brown, questioned the executive committee's right to conduct such business in private.

"If the committee is vested with any authority to make any decisions, then it is subject to the Open Meetings Act," Reymann said. "The initial vote, that would get you to the point they're currently at, should be done in public." Andy Shaw, executive director of the nonprofit Better Government Association, based in Chicago, said the agency's actions looked like a "blatant violation" of Utah's open-meeting laws. "Officials at the Transit Authority should be asked to discuss and approve all of these actions in public," Shaw added, "and if they refuse, the state authorities in charge of enforcing Utah's laws should step in and handle the matter."

UTA's executive salaries "seem excessively high at a time when taxpayers are struggling to pay their bills," Shaw said, "and government at all levels is bleeding red ink." Early this week, UTA implemented $3 million in service cutbacks in an effort to help compensate for sales tax revenue declines that the agency says have totaled $35 million in the last two years.


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