SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Transit Authority top boss Jerry Benson will keep a severance package valued at more than $200,000 after trustees narrowly voted Wednesday to reaffirm their earlier decision to fire him without cause.
The 6-5 vote, taken because the Utah Attorney General's Office determined the UTA board's April action may have violated the state's open meetings act, came after a lengthy hearing that included a warning from Benson's attorney.
Litigation would be "likely," the attorney, Lincoln Hobbs, said, if the board didn't come to their earlier conclusion, that their only option was to terminate Benson and trigger a nine-month salary and benefits package.
"I think the litigation would be divisive. It would be expensive. It would be destructive to this agency in moving forward under the new statute," Hobbs said, referring to a legislative overhaul of UTA that took effect May 8.
The law passed last session replaces both the board and the president, CEO and general manager positions Benson held with a new, three-member management team that will be appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert before Nov. 1.
The House sponsor of SB136, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told the board that the law did not prevent Benson from staying on as executive director at his current salary at least through the transition.
"It's a title. That's all it is. The duties are largely almost identical," Schultz said.
He said lawmakers intended for Benson to stay on and "had no idea" the board felt it had to let him go because of the new law.
"Jerry's a free man," Schultz said, able to quit or retire from UTA, options that would not provide what he said was a $250,000 severance package. However, Schultz said the board had the right to terminate Benson even if it wasn't the "best option."
Several trustees pressed Benson to re-consider leaving UTA, but he said he didn't see a future for himself with the agency he had been a part of for more than three decades.
"I made no secret of my criticism," Benson said of the "divided accountability" under the new governance structure created by the Utah Legislature. He said he had insisted on taking all three positions to ensure he had full authority to run UTA.
Benson said the decision the board had "already teed up today" is a better choice to avoid what he termed a "Jerry hangover" during the transition. He said the future for UTA is different than what had been envisioned, but it is a bright one.
The board's chairman, Greg Bell, agreed, citing the first-ever state transit fund also included in the new law. But Bell told the board he fought against the restructuring of the agency, urging lawmakers to instead shrink the existing board.
In the end, Bell, a former lieutenant governor, said Schultz and other lawmakers pushed both him and Benson to stand down and "for the greater good, for the long-term vision, that’s what we did."
Although Bell said early on during the 2 ½-hour discussion that there was "no predetermined result," he ended up prodding trustees to accept a resolution reaffirming the April action that was already written.
The split vote came after a failed attempt to amend the resolution to instead accept Benson's resignation and pay him the severance in exchange for an agreement he would not take legal action against UTA.
"Severance is the elephant in the room," said trustee Troy Walker, an attorney and the mayor of Draper. Walker said he believe the board got bad legal advice about the issue and couldn't gauge the risk of losing a lawsuit.
"I would rather go through this process and let the public know why we made this decision and be done with it and on our way," Walker said.
Another trustee, Davis County Commissioner Bret Millburn, added a clause requiring that Benson forego any legal action against the agency. Their efforts were upended when a move was made to return to the original resolution.
The vote on that briefly appeared to be in doubt. During a break taken afterwards, Bell told several reporters the vote on the resolution had been miscounted and was actually a tie, meaning it failed to pass.
But after reconvening, the votes were reviewed and Bell ruled the resolution had passed and "the statement that it was incorrect was incorrect."
One issue that was only mentioned in passing during the meeting was the controversy surrounding a portion of SB136 that called for UTA to be renamed the Transit District of Utah.
UTA opposed the switch and said it would cost at least $50 million. Lawmakers scoffed at that price tag, but eventually gave in to pressure from the public and the governor and said that portion of the bill will be repealed.