SALT LAKE CITY — It probably isn't the start Greg Bell had hoped for as the incoming chairman of the Utah Transit Authority board of trustees.
A meeting where he was supposed to be sworn in had to be postponed several days until Monday because the board's agenda was not properly noticed under the state's open meetings law.
The delay came as a legislative task force is readying a restructuring of the agency that calls for shrinking the size of the board and replacing top management with a smaller commission.
The reforms are already being endorsed by Gov. Gary Herbert in his new budget and key lawmakers, including House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, as necessary for the cash-strapped agency to start sharing in state transportation funds.
UTA has been in the spotlight for years. A series of critical legislative audits pointed out a number of issues, including excessive executive bonuses and questionable development deals made at transit stops.
Those deals are now part an ongoing federal probe. Earlier this year, UTA signed a nonprosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office, agreeing to cooperate with the investigation and submit to up to three years of federal monitoring.
Bell, a former lieutenant governor who is now president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association and a columnist for the Deseret News, said his top priority is building trust in the agency among the public and policymakers.
"First and foremost … we want to establish our good name with our stakeholders. I think they're a long way toward doing that," Bell said. "Secondly, we want to start the conversation again about doing what UTA does best."
What the agency does best "is contributing to the transportation policy in our state. We've been a big player," he said, citing as examples connecting light rail to Salt Lake City International Airport and expanding mass transit in Utah County.
Bell's plan for helping the agency move forward is making sure UTA stays upfront about what's going on.
"The best antiseptic is fresh air. And so transparency has got to be a very high priority for this board and this organization," he said. "We're just very open. We're a public agency."
Bell was appointed by the governor to the UTA board in September 2016 to replace H. David Burton, the former presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had taken over as chairman from Hughes.
Robert McKinley, an attorney who represented municipalities in Salt Lake and Tooele counties on the board, succeeded Burton as chairman. McKinley's term as a trustee is ending.
The governor made his feelings about the need for changes at UTA clear in his new budget.
Herbert said in the document that allowing the agency to receive state transportation funds "will also require governance reform to ensure that transit expenditures are accountable and transparent."
Replacing the current board "with a smaller commission appointed by the governor and giving (the Utah Department of Transportation) control over state-funded transit projects would help ensure this accountability," he said.
Lawmakers have been more blunt.
"The governance model of UTA, I think, is a critical issue in this upcoming session, and I hope that we're ready to have those tough conversations," Hughes said at a recent Legislative Management Committee meeting.
The House speaker said he believes UTA "is a victim of its own success in many ways. Its board model, I think, has outlived the size and scope and impact of that transit authority."
Hughes cited his own time as a trustee in supporting the switch to a full-time commission.
"I think that's a very strong model. I think it's a needed change," he said. "I think it could create the kind of partnerships counties and cities and the state frankly need."
The Legislature's Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force, which included local government and business leaders as well as lawmakers, considered a range of options for changing how UTA is run, including an outright takeover by the state.
But having to also assume the transit agency's $2 billion debt, roughly the same amount state government owes despite a much smaller budget, raised concerns because of the potential damage to the state's top credit rating.
Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, co-chairman of the task force, said in a report to the Legislative Management Committee that the option at the other extreme, just reducing the size of the UTA board, wasn't going to be enough.
"That's just putting lipstick on a pig," Schultz said.
He said the trouble with relying on a board to oversee UTA is that trustees just don't "have the time and effort to put forth," since many are also local government leaders on top of their day jobs.
That sparked the plan for putting a three-member, full-time commission at the helm of the transit agency. Commissioners would be nominated by officials from the counties served by UTA and appointed by the governor to three-year terms.
"The bucks stops with someone" with a commission in charge, Schultz said, acknowledging there are still a lot of details to be worked out before the 2018 Legislature begins meeting in late January.
Bell believes there's no need to rush.
"There's a train of thought that UTA has busted its buns to clean up its act. Let's let the dust settle and see what these guys can do for a year or so," he said, noting it may be several years before significant state transportation funds are even available.
That could give UTA time to "really address" the concerns lawmakers have, Bell said.
He said it's not clear what the restructuring being discussed would do "other than moving the chairs around" to improve the agency's productivity and performance, and protect against any improprieties.
"I've always believed in one strong executive, and that executive needs to be counseled and restrained by rules, regulations, laws and a board," Bell said. "That's just the way we usually do things."
This isn't the first time Bell has been at the helm of an entity going through difficulties. In 2014, the governor named him to head the governing authority of the Utah Science Technology and Research economic development effort.
"USTAR had a crisis just like this. It's very, very similar," Bell said. "We had to take our whopping. That was the term I used with the Legislature. I said, 'OK, we've taken our whopping. We understand you think there were some irregularities.'"
An audit had found there were exaggerations in the amount of jobs and revenue created as a result of investments in university research. Bell said lawmakers made some changes, but not to the organization's structure.
"USTAR is out of the paper now," he said. "They're functioning great, and they're very, very effective."
Whether that will be the story for UTA remains to be seen.15 comments on this story
"UTA is not in a defensive posture. We're not trying to say leave us alone, or we won't change, or everything's fine," Bell said. Instead, he said, the agency is ready to talk with the governor, lawmakers and anyone else with a stake in transit.
"We will react objectively to whatever management proposals are given us. It's not our role to say, 'Don't do this, do this,'" he said. But state lawmakers decide "they want it run in a different manner, we'll make that work."