SALT LAKE CITY — Gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Johnson started airing radio commercials Monday calling for changes at the Utah Transit Authority, the first in his race to unseat Gov. Gary Herbert, a fellow Republican, in 2016.
"No more backroom deals by career politicians. Utah can do it better," Johnson said in the 60-second spot airing on KSL Newsradio and other stations. Members of the UTA board should be elected rather than appointed by "political insiders," he said.
"It's an issue that's prominent right now because of what happened in the election on Proposition 1 and the continued mistakes we see from UTA," said Dave Hansen, Johnson's campaign consultant.
The public's perception of the transit agency, widely criticized over high executive salaries and bonuses, was largely blamed for voters rejecting the sales tax increase for transportation in seven of 17 counties statewide, including Salt Lake.
After the Nov. 3 election, controversy surfaced over a trip to Switzerland where a meeting lawmakers and UTA board members held with a railcar manufacturer resulted in the agency canceling a competitive bid in September.
Chris Bleak, vice chairman of the UTA board, has resigned, and two more board members associated with the controversial trade mission are expected to step down.
Hansen said the campaign felt the issue was important enough to begin advertising "while people are talking about it. Jonathan has come up with a proposal that makes a lot of sense."
He said the advertising "is not necessarily directed at the governor," who is expected to face Johnson at the Republican Party's state nominating convention next April and possibly in a primary election.
Herbert's campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, had little to say about the new commercials, scheduled to air through Wednesday.
"We just had an election just a few weeks ago and those who won have not even been sworn in yet. The governor will campaign at the appropriate time during the election year," Carpenter said.
Asked if he saw UTA as a campaign issue, Carpenter said "good governance is always something we will emphasize, but UTA isn't a state agency, so it's difficult to say."
The governor's spokesman, Jon Cox, said Herbert addressed the issue in an August 2014 news conference on KUED. At that time, the governor said elected officials should be appointed to the 16-member board to boost accountability.
"I don't know that it needs to be an elected board, but maybe the people who are appointed ought to be elected officials," Herbert said then, so voters will be able "to make decisions of support or displeasure" at the ballot box.
"The governor is supportive of more accountability on the UTA board and appreciates the work of his appointee, board (Chairman) H. David Burton, to bring increased transparency to the agency," Cox said.
He said Herbert "feels strongly that accountability is critical for those entrusted with public funds, including UTA. But at the end of the day, whether someone is elected or appointed by an elected official, there is no substitute for integrity."
What Johnson is proposing is reducing the size of the UTA board to nine members. Eight would be elected and one appointed by the governor, and all would be limited to a single six-year term.
"Jonathan is the type of candidate that when he sees a problem, he comes up with a solution," his spokeswoman, Sasha Clark, said. "This is more about the public seeing what kind of governor he would be if elected."
Targeting UTA in his first commercials may have been a good move for Johnson, still relatively unknown to Utah voters, said University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless.
"He's trying to define himself. How to do that? Well, here's a sensational issue," said Chambless, who's associated with the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics. It's also an issue, he said, that "has the greatest impact on the most populous counties."
Chambless said it's not too early for Johnson to be reaching out to voters through paid media. In January, candidates can begin collecting voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot, and political parties will choose convention delegates in March.