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Lawmakers pull the plug on UTA name change

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers confirmed Wednesday they're pulling the plug on changing the name of the Utah Transit Authority, just hours after Gov. Gary Herbert said he was willing to call a special session if necessary to stop the name change.

"It's clear that the public doesn't feel that the name change is needed and appropriate," said Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, the House sponsor of the sweeping transportation legislation that renamed UTA the Transit District of Utah.

The sponsor of SB136, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, said he would run legislation repealing the new name during the 2019 Legislature and asked that UTA not go forward with plans to bring in a rebranding consultant.

"The name change is a distraction. It's getting in the way of the core mission of the bill," Harper said at a news conference called to announce the decision. "We're taking that off the table. UTA stays as it is."

UTA spokesman Carl Arky said the transit agency will comply with whatever lawmakers want.

"All we can do is go by what they tell us, which is what we've been trying to do anyway," Arky said, adding he feels UTA has been working with lawmakers "in good faith. … They've told us to cease, so we will cease."

He declined to comment on the impact of keeping the UTA name.

"We were ready to follow the letter of the law," Arky said. "It’s really not an issue of whether we think it is good or it is bad. We are really not at liberty to have that kind of opinion as an organization."

Both Schultz and Harper said they do not believe a special session is needed because the legislation spelled out that the change could be made over time, as resources allow.

No money was appropriated by the Legislature for renaming UTA, even though the transit agency warned lawmakers the price tag added up to at least $50 million, including expensive paint jobs on buses and additional personnel.

That estimate, Schultz said, was intended to be a distraction to other actions by UTA, including the recent firing of former President and CEO Jerry Benson without cause so he could leave with a sizable severance package.

Schultz highlighted that deal, which allows Benson to collect nine months of salary and benefits, and said the Utah Attorney General's Office has taken issue with whether the action was taken in compliance with the state's open meetings act.

He said he wants UTA to take another look at the severance package.

UTA Interim Executive Director Steve Meyer said in a statement that while a letter from the attorney general's office "does not conclude that there was an actual violation, UTA takes this matter very seriously."

Meyer said the issue surrounding the severance vote is being reviewed internally and UTA is conferring with the attorney general's office "to determine if additional action is required by the board."

The friction between lawmakers and UTA may be eased later this year, after a new, three-member management team created by the legislation takes over from the current UTA board and top bosses.

The governor will appoint the three new trustees and have the ability to fire them.

Herbert told the Deseret News earlier Wednesday that he was happy the name won't be changed and was glad to see lawmakers coming around "to what I think is mainly just common sense."

Even before the legislative session ended, he had asked lawmakers to "push the pause button" on the name change, something he said then that the legislation he ultimately signed permitted.

The governor said no matter what the cost, there is no reason to rename UTA.

"I know the number came out — $50 million — that some have scoffed at. It may be too high," he said. "But I've said even if it was just a million dollars, why would we spend any money on a name change?"

Herbert said there's in effect a loophole in the law, spelling out that the name change "doesn't have to go forward unless there's an appropriation of money." And, he said, UTA could always file paperwork to do business under its current name.

Still, the governor said if there needs to be more clarity about what name should be on the transit agency's buses, light rail cars and commuter trains, he's willing to call lawmakers back for a special session before the 2019 Legislature.

"I'd work with the Legislature to take that out," he said.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he believes the repeal of the name change can wait, but there would be no reason not to handle it sooner if the governor calls a special session for other issues.

The repeal was discussed among House and Senate Republicans during closed-door midday caucus meetings and apparently has widespread support among the Legislature's supermajority.

The name change seemed like a good idea at the time, both Schultz and Harper said.

"As you look at businesses that have had tainted pasts, a lot of times, in order to send a strong message that there's new governance or new leadership in place, they'll go through and re-name the company," Schultz said.

He said there was concern the public wouldn't understand how dramatic the changes made to UTA were unless the name was dropped to give the transit agency a fresh start.

"It seemed to be the prudent thing to do," Harper said. "It was part of a whole package to create the new vision, the new energy, the new accountability within all levels of transportation in the state."

Besides overhauling how UTA is run, the bill that took effect May 8 also allows state transportation dollars to be used for transit for the first time and offers local governments the opportunity to raise sales taxes for transportation needs.

The governor said the majority of Utahns like the service they're getting from UTA and continuing to improve that is what will turn around how the public sees the transit agency, not a new name.

"It's a monopoly. People act like, you know, well if we just change the name, all of a sudden the problems that arose and the negative perception of UTA will go away. People aren't going to be fooled," he said. "It's just silly."

What the public doesn't like, the governor said, "is the infighting, the lack of transparency, some of the issues that have happened with some of the governance, some of the insider dealings that have appeared to have happened in the past."

The problems identified by legislative auditors over the years have largely been cleared up, he said. UTA signed a nonprosecution agreement last year in the ongoing federal investigation into transit deals and is under federal monitoring.

The governor said he has confidence in how his appointee, UTA Board Chairman Greg Bell, will handle the issue of Benson's severance. He said the argument for the package is that Benson's position with UTA was eliminated under the new law.

"That's probably going to be an ongoing discussion," the governor said. "We'll have to wait and see what happens with that."