Salt Lake City Council shuts down Dabakis' appointment to UTA board

"That's going to require a more intimate relationship with our transit provider than we ever had before. It's not a time for our single (board member) to fight," she continued.

Mendenhall also questioned whether Dabakis would best represent the transit users living in Salt Lake City, with less of a transportation background than the city's previous representative, Keith Bartholomew, a University of Utah associate professor of city and metropolitan planning who had served on the board for 13 years.

But to Dabakis, the City Council missed the point and made a "big policy blunder," attributing the failed nomination to "serious tension" between Biskupski and the council.

"It's not tinkering around the edges that UTA needs. The UTA house is on fire, and they're worried about the plumbing not working, you know?" he said.

Dabakis was referring to UTA's embattled history, with a past board loaded with developers. A 2014 audit revealed questionable development deals, extravagant executive pay and bonuses, as well as concerns over massive debt.

Since then, the agency has been under federal investigation, recently striking a nonprosecution agreement in exchange for cooperation with ongoing investigations, and it is now under federal monitoring for three years. Past board member and developer Terry Diehl has been indicted, but authorities say there's more to come.

Though Dabakis admitted he was not a "transportation expert," he tried to convince the council he was the best person to help keep UTA transparent and regain public trust.

"If you confirm me, I will change the corporate culture," he pledged.

Biskupski tried to convince council members that Dabakis had the political expertise to restore public trust to UTA, which she said will be essential for Salt Lake City if it ever again asks for additional tax dollars for transit projects. She pointed to Proposition 1 in 2015, a proposed tax hike that failed on the ballot largely due to public distrust of UTA, political leaders have said.

Biskupski said she was "truly disappointed" the council rejected Dabakis' nomination.

"It appears the majority have made up their mind already before they interviewed him," the mayor said.

Biskupski agreed with Dabakis that the council missed the "big picture."

"We absolutely need somebody in there who can help build public trust. That is the bigger issue here," she said. "Without public trust, we will never have our own Proposition 1 passed. We just won't."

But City Council Chairman Stan Penfold pointed out that Proposition 1 passed by more than 60 percent in Salt Lake City, though it failed in other parts of the county. He agreed the city needs a representative with more transit expertise.

Councilman Charlie Luke said he voted against Dabakis' nomination "not because I'm not interested in transparency, but rather because 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 legislative level, not internally as a UTA board member," Luke said.

In the meantime, Salt Lake City is "more dependent than any other city on UTA," he said.

"We can't wait before UTA is reformed to figure out the airport terminal extension, increased bus frequency and routes in the city, and increased (streetcar) service," Luke said. "Those things need to happen now."

James Rogers was the only council member who voted in favor of Dabakis' nomination, but he didn't explain his vote.

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