SALT LAKE CITY — As state and local officials attempt to give a fresh start to the scandal-riddled Utah Transit Authority, Salt Lake County officials have approved two nominations for the county's seat on UTA's new three-member governing board.
And they're both familiar faces.
They include Draper Mayor Troy Walker, who has served on UTA's board of trustees since 2012, and Laynee Jones, the former program director of the now-dissolved Mountain Accord, a stakeholder group that has now transformed into the Central Wasatch Commission to guide long-term decision-making in the central Wasatch Mountains.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and a nominating committee made up of a handful of County Council members and other local elected officials chose Walker and Jones out of a pool of seven applicants as the best qualified to represent Salt Lake County on UTA's new governing board.
While the nominations drew praise, they also raised concern from some members on the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday. Criticism also came Wednesday from critics of the Mountain Accord, which is currently embroiled in a lawsuit claiming violations of Utah open meetings laws.
Walker and Jones' nominations come after the Utah Legislature passed SB136, a sweeping transportation bill that included a restructuring of UTA's governance, requiring that its 16-member board of trustees be replaced with a full-time, three-member board by Nov. 1.
The restructuring is part of an effort to put UTA's past controversies — including questionable land deals, extravagant executive pay and questions of transparency — to rest.
County Councilman Steve DeBry grappled with Walker and Jones' nominations, though he lauded both of them for their time in public service and experience.
Addressing Walker, DeBry noted the Draper mayor's history on UTA's current board of trustees and wondered whether appointing him to UTA's new board would accomplish the goal of giving the agency a fresh start.
"What came in my heart and mind when I learned you're one of the candidates — it's the past," DeBry said.
"If we want a fresh start, fresh ideas without having bad optics, we don't want to go around the barn again and come out the same door again with the same people," DeBry added.
Walker didn't respond to DeBry's comments during Tuesday's meeting, but he said in an interview Wednesday his experience on UTA's board should be seen "actually as a plus."
"I think I've been an agent of change," Walker said. "I've advocated for the reforms we've made, supported every reform we made after the audits — I was there for all of it. And, frankly, I supported (SB136) unequivocally."
DeBry also pointed out Jones' past with Mountain Accord and the pending lawsuit over whether the group had violated the state's open meetings laws.
Speaking with the Deseret News on Wednesday, the plaintiff in that lawsuit, property owner Norm Henderson, likewise criticized Walker and Jones' nominations and whether they'd bring UTA the clean slate it needs. Henderson also pointed out that Walker served on Mountain Accord's executive board.
"I just find it very curious that (McAdams) is proposing to use two people from a flawed Mountain Accord process that is being criticized for the very same thing they are trying to correct with UTA," Henderson said.
Last year, a judge found the Mountain Accord is subject to Utah's open meetings laws. McAdams, who was chairman of the group's executive board, had asked the court to dismiss the suit in January, arguing the group was made up of private entities and was formed based on its own charter, so it wasn't subject to open meetings laws.
McAdams told the council on Tuesday the Mountain Accord "never held a closed meeting," and that it did post its meetings on its own website, but the issue was whether or not Mountain Accord was required to post meeting notices on the state's website or whether it needed to record its meetings.
"The Mountain Accord board determined to act in an open way, but there were some technicalities they believe they were not able to comply with, and that's what's being discussed right now," McAdams said, noting that "Laynee did great work there" and any determinations on whether or not to post the group's meetings on the state's website "were not any of her responsibility."
Jones responded to DeBry's questions by arguing she strives to be a "very transparent person."
"The Mountain Accord machine was much bigger than just myself, and so the decisions were made by the board on how those meetings were conducted," Jones said. "I'm a very transparent person, and it is of utmost importance to me that I operate in an open and inclusive way."
Jones noted the "critics of the Mountain Accord have my cell number," and that she has met with them several times as well as exchanged "hundreds" of emails with them.
"I think it's important that this body understand that's how I operate and how important that is to me," Jones said.
Both McAdams and members of his selection committee argued Jones and Walker were well-qualified for the position and both were selected to help UTA into a new era.
"I think we are dang lucky as a county to have two incredibly qualified people who have stepped forward and are willing to do this job," McAdams said.4 comments on this story
Ultimately, Jones and Walker found support from a majority of the council and their nominations were forwarded to Gov. Gary Herbert's office for consideration, pending approval of the Utah Senate.
Salt Lake County is one of several other counties who will get appointees on the new board. The two remaining appointments will come from Davis and Weber counties and Utah and Tooele counties, due July 31. As of Wednesday, Herbert hadn't yet received word from the other counties about their appointments, according to the governor's office.