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Third new UTA board seat still empty as two nominees pledge to repair trust

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Sep. 24, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — As the new board meant to start a fresh chapter for the scandal-riddled Utah Transit Authority gets closer to its November deadline to take control, state leaders are moving forward — even though a third seat is still empty.

A Senate committee gave two names put forward by Gov. Gary Herbert preliminary approval Monday, subject to confirmation by the full Utah Senate expected during an interim day next month.

But a third name — meant to represent Utah and Tooele counties — remained missing, to the frustration of Utah County commissioners.

But if that third seat is still empty by the time the new board takes control Nov. 1, as mandated under state law, the new board could still get down to business, since it only takes two members of a three-member board to hold a quorum.

Despite state law setting an Aug. 31 deadline for the governor to nominate the three new board members, Herbert recently rejected nominations from Utah and Tooele county leaders, requesting additional names.

But so far, Utah County hasn't put forth any new names. One Utah County commissioner said Tuesday he's standing by their nominees as qualified candidates — and even said county leaders have been discussing the possibility of sending a petition to the Utah Supreme Court to request the governor be instructed to follow the law laying out the process for board nominations.

"That's being considered," said Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee, noting it's "very concerning" Herbert passed over Utah County's picks for representation.

"I don't know what else the governor wants us to do," Lee said. "If he wants to come down and pick them himself, he can, but that doesn't really follow the (process laid out in SB136)."

Herbert's office issued a statement Tuesday noting the governor has requested new nominations from the two counties.

"He's confident that he is acting within his constitutional and statutory authority," the statement said.

As for the other two nominees put forward by other counties and passed through to senators by Herbert, they have one more step to go — consideration from the full Senate — before being appointed to the new UTA board of trustees. The new board is meant to restore public trust in the agency tainted with a past of questionable land deals, exorbitant bonuses and a scathing audit.

To represent Salt Lake County: Carlton Christensen, a former Salt Lake City Council member who plans to leave his position as director of Salt Lake County's Department of Regional Transportation to take the new post at UTA.

To represent Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties: Bountiful City Councilwoman Beth Holbrook, who also served this year as president of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. Holbrook said she plans to resign from her seat on the Bountiful City Council for the UTA job, but planned to stay on the league's board — although amid questioning from lawmakers she agreed to resign if it becomes a problem.

Ultimately, both Christensen and Holbrook were given a favorable recommendation from the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Confirmation Committee.

Only one legislator, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, cast the lone dissenting vote on Holbrook's appointment, saying she didn't have "exactly the qualifications that I'm looking for."

Another, Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, noted Holbrook's position on the Utah League of Cities and Towns — an organization that lobbies for local municipalities — was a point of "contention."

But after Holbrook pledged she would recuse herself from any UTA-related decisions on the league board, Buxton ultimately lauded her role with the league as a "great asset" to have for UTA's relationship with cities and towns.

Christensen, however, was given unanimous approval.

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During their hearings in front of senators Monday, both Christensen and Holbrook promised to work to repair public trust in UTA. They both pointed to experiences with controversy with past organizations that saw scandals of their own.

Christensen noted he was a member of the Salt Lake City Council when former Mayor Deedee Corradini solicited donations to help her out of personal debt. Christensen called it a "serious judgment lapse" that caused "a lot of turmoil and consternation" in city government at the time.

"We put in place one of the most stringent ethics ordinances that surpassed state requirements that made sure something of that nature didn't happen again," Christensen said.

"I value my integrity," Christensen said, noting that he's "not afraid' to make tough choices. "As I've worked through my public service, I'm certainly not perfect by any means, but I've always tried to do what's right."

Holbrook served on the board of the Utah League of Cities and Towns last year when its former executive director, Ken Bullock, resigned after a state audit found questionable credit card charges and other expenses.

Holbrook pointed to the league's efforts to change policies and practices to restore trust and increase transparency within the organization.

Both Christensen and Holbrook vowed to increase transparency at UTA. Discussions "will be not only in an open and public meeting, but thoroughly vetted and discussed," Christensen said.

Meanwhile, Utah and Tooele counties still don't have a nominee.

The Utah County Commission previously nominated former Cedar Hills councilman Rob Crawler, owner of a consulting company, and Pleasant Grove City Councilman Ben Stanley, an attorney. But Herbert, in response, sent a letter to Utah County asking for more names.

The two nominations drew some criticism, including former Cedar Hills Mayor Gary Gygi, who wrote in a Daily Herald op-ed that both men are friends of Lee, questioning their qualifications for the position.

Lee said he believes the county's nominees were "more than qualified," and he criticized the governor for not following the process laid out in SB136.

"It's very concerning to me on multiple levels," Lee said.

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