Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s controversial nomination of Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) to the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) Board of Trustees failed Tuesday on a 6-1 vote. Only Councilman James Rogers (District 1 – Rose Park/Fairpark) voted in favor of advancing the senator as members of the Salt Lake City Council worried aloud about Dabakis’ qualifications and lack of transportation experience.
“[If confirmed, I will] change the corporate culture because I think the only way we’re seriously going to get to our goals is to change that culture,” said Dabakis. “I want to work together with the UTA Board to bring them up to the standards that we expect of ourselves as public servants and then we’ll build the trust back and then we’ll be able to move forward.”
Dabakis pointed to a “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” that he has crafted with North Ogden Mayor, and UTA Board Member, Brent Taylor. It calls for open meetings, executive compensation limits, eliminating UTA’s current bonus program, public conflict of interest disclosures for UTA executives and board members, term limits for board members, reform to real estate transaction procedures, banning the UTA from purchasing any further property for transit-oriented development projects, repealing UTA’s policy that bans board members from speaking to the media, banning the UTA from using tax dollars to hire lobbyists to the Utah Legislature, and forbidding the UTA from identifying itself as a “quasi-government” entity. In closing, Dabakis urged council members to choose a representative who can speak truth to power.
Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall (District 5 – Liberty Wells/Ballpark/East Liberty Park) was disappointed in Dabakis for painting a “binary picture” of reforming the UTA. “I don’t see it as such a black and white situation we are in because I absolutely agree that the UTA does need reformation and that the failure of the proposition for funding last year was based on a lack of public trust and a lack of state trust and that that type of funding is critical for a broad success of public transportation,” said Mendenhall. “The part that I don’t agree with you on is this board appointment itself and the role of the position you’ve been nominated for in representing our unique public transit needs.”
Councilman Charlie Luke (District 6 – Foothill) moved to suspend the rules and not approve the nomination. He said that Dabakis will be able to accomplish much more in the Utah Legislature to advance UTA reform. “Jim can already do everything he’s talking about in his current role as a state senator. UTA definitely needs a shakeup; the entire structure should be reformed. This can only be done at the state legislative level, not internally as a UTA board member.
Councilman Derek Kitchen (District 4 – Downtown/Central City/East Central) praised Dabakis but said his nomination was unfortunate. “This is truly just a symptom of the current mayor’s administration that either doesn’t understand or care, in my opinion, to effectively address transportation issues in our city,” Kitchen told the body. “We need transparency, but we need somebody who uses the [public transit] system to advocate for Salt Lake City on UTA’s board.”
It’s now back to the drawing board for Biskupski, who ordered the resignation of Salt Lake City’s longtime UTA representative, Keith Bartholomew, in April. Biskupski’s office released a statement late Tuesday critical of the Council for, in her words, sticking with the UTA status-quo and passing on a reformer like Dabakis. “I will continue to advocate for a strong reformer to represent Salt Lake City on the Board of Trustees. Today in his testimony, Sen. Dabakis said it best: ‘the house is on fire and we are arguing about the plumbing,'” concluded BIskupski.