City Council members question Dabakis’ qualifications for UTA board and mayor’s motives for nominating him

By | The Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake City Council members said Thursday that they are unlikely to sign off on the appointment of state Sen. Jim Dabakis to the Utah Transit Authority board, and they wondered why Mayor Jackie Biskupski would put forth a name she knew might be dead on arrival.

At least two of Salt Lake City's seven council members told the administration prior to Wednesday's announcement that they had reservations about his appointment. Six who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday found fault in the mayor's choice.

"We're in an unfortunate position where we have a very good individual who likely will be voted down because we have a different priority mindset," said Councilman Charlie Luke, who said he is close friends with Dabakis, but that the senator lacks the necessary experience in transportation. "This is too big of an issue to be playing politics with, and right now, that's all this has become."

James Rogers was the lone council member who had no qualms with Biskupski's choice — he's worked well with Dabakis in the past, he said.

But "if it's a no-go, a nonstarting conversation, then why would she put that forward?" Rogers asked.

Council members Lisa Adams, Erin Mendenhall and Andrew Johnston said they'd hoped for a nominee with more transportation expertise. Mendenhall said Keith Bartholomew — a University of Utah associate professor of city and metropolitan planning who had served on the board for 13 years before he was asked by the mayor to resign in April — "filled that role quite well."

Councilman Derek Kitchen said he met with Dabakis before the announcement and told the former Senate minority leader and state Democratic Party chairman that he wouldn't support any nomination "until we have a serious conversation with the mayor about transportation in our city and what [Salt Lake City] wants its 'voice' on the UTA board to be."

"I'm disappointed that she keeps 'firing' well qualified professionals and putting forward her friends," Kitchen said in a text message Thursday.

Dabakis serves on the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee, but he said it was fair to rate his transportation credentials as less than ideal.

"They're right. I've never been a transportation planner, but I don't think that that is what is needed on the board at this time."

Salt Lake City spokesman Matthew Rojas said the outspoken UTA critic is uniquely positioned to bridge the "credibility gap" faced by UTA — which is $2 billion in debt and the subject of an ongoing federal probe. Rojas said that's important, given that city transit priorities will require taxpayer support of the agency.

Biskupski declined to comment for this story.

Johnston agreed that Dabakis "is great about bringing attention to issues that need attention brought to them," but he's "not sure UTA needs more attention brought to it at this point. They're front-page news any time they do anything."

Dabakis said he "occasionally" uses transit and would do so more often. After "a year, or two, or three, after we have worked to solve these broader issues about trust and making sure that UTA has gained back the full faith and credit of the public, then [the council members] might have a point" about his lack of transportation knowledge.

Bartholomew said when Biskupski asked him to resign in April that his conversation with the mayor had centered on UTA's level of responsibility, per an agreement with the city, to fully fund a $68.5 million relocation of its airport TRAX line.

Bartholomew had questioned whether UTA alone should be responsible for the full cost of the relocation, which it agreed to be in 2008 while anticipating, according to UTA officials, a cost of $5 million to $15 million.

Council members have indicated an openness to contributing some city funds toward the TRAX extension.

Rojas said "95 percent" of feedback to Wednesday's announcement has been positive.

"From what we're seeing, we think that there's pretty strong public support," Rojas said. "We're confident the council will ultimately approve Sen. Dabakis."

Council Chairman Stan Penfold declined to comment on the nomination, other than to say he had concerns and that, like Luke, a suspicion that it was "political."

Dabakis said Thursday afternoon that he appreciated that council members wanted what was best for their constituents and that he was on the verge of informing them by text message that he was anxious to sit down with them and chat.

Dabakis said he hopes "this doesn't become some kind of a political dogfight. This isn't about politics between the mayor and the council."

Twitter: @matthew_piper