SALT LAKE CITY — Not having a federal monitor in place to oversee the Utah Transit Authority nearly a year after a deadline set in a nonprosecution deal underscores the need for the major changes just made to the agency, lawmakers said Friday.
"The monitor's not in place. Nothing's happened. I think that highlights again why the changes need to be made in UTA," said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the sponsor of a bill overhauling the transit agency passed by the 2018 Legislature.
Harper said he thought UTA already was operating under the federal monitor called for in the April 2017 agreement to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney's ongoing investigation in exchange for not being prosecuted.
"Whatever was amiss, it's time for internal changes so the agency can move forward," said Harper, co-chairman of the Legislature's yearlong Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force that recommended the UTA changes.
The other co-chairman of the task force, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said the lack of action demonstrates why it was important to make the Utah Attorney General's Office the transit agency's legal counsel.
"That's the biggest reason why we put the A.G.'s office in charge of their counsel — it acts as a third party, a separate entity," he said, that reports to an elected attorney general.
"I hope that's one of the needed checks and balances going forward. Personally, I think that's every bit as good as a federal monitor. And it's permanent," Schultz said.
Under the nonprosecution agreement, UTA is to be overseen for three years once a monitor is retained "or a shorter period as recommended by the monitor based on UTA's performance under the monitorship."
Another clause in the agreement spells out that UTA and the U.S. Attorney's Office should settle on a federal monitor within 30 days of the April agreement and hire them within 60 days.
But both UTA's general counsel, Jayme Blakesley, and the spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah, Melodie Rydalch, said in statements that the agreement has not been affected by missing that deadline.
"UTA is in full compliance with its obligations under the nonprosecution agreement and will continue to assist the U.S. Department of Justice in its ongoing investigation," Blakesley said.
Rydalch said "the parties intend to move forward with the monitoring agreement. Neither party is in breach of the nonprosecution agreement."
Greg Bell, who took over as the chairman of the UTA board of trustees in December, said he's been told that the transit agency has submitted the name of a potential monitor from a list supplied by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"It's in their court. It's pretty much always been in their court," Bell said. "I wasn't concerned because things were going so well from our perspective. ...We were just trying to be the most open, transparent, taxpayer-friendly agency in Utah."
Bell said there have been concerns raised by trustee Sherrie Hall Everett and others that replacing Blakesley and the rest of UTA's legal staff could jeopardize the nonprosecution agreement.
"I would honestly say that I don't know and it's yet to be proven. There are voices on the legislative side, the attorney general's side, that said we can work through all this stuff," Bell said. "It's a complicated thing and there are a lot of considerations."3 comments on this story
The bill that passed in the final days of the legislative session that ended March 8 also replaces the 16-member board of trustees with a three-member management team that will be in charge of running UTA.
That change takes place in November, while lawyers from the Utah Attorney General's Office aren't scheduled to move into UTA headquarters to serve as the agency's legal counsel until July 2019.
"This isn't something you can go from A to Z overnight. I hope it does happen as soon as it can, but there has to be a transition period there," Schultz said, crediting UTA's administration with "working full-steam ahead to get things done."