SLC Council is worried about the plumbing on a burning UTA board, spurned Dabakis says

First Published Jun 13 2017 12:18PM    •    Last Updated Jun 14 2017 03:02 pm

Reading the room, state Sen. Jim Dabakis concluded in the middle of a Tuesday confirmation hearing that he was unlikely to be named Salt Lake City's representative on the Utah Transit Authority's board.

"I'll move on with the fragile parts of my life without this appointment," he told the Salt Lake City Council during the interview, in which council members were friendly but unrelenting in expressing their doubts about Dabakis' qualifications.

His nomination was voted down Tuesday night, with Councilman James Rogers the lone dissenter in a 6-1 vote.

Expecting as much even before his Tuesday interview, Dabakis chalked up his destiny to a "raging war" between the council and Mayor Jackie Biskupski — who nominated him — and to what he portrayed as the council's contentedness with the status quo at the beleaguered transit agency.

"I certainly took note of what was being said," Biskupski said. "They feel like the person they want on this board is a user of transit and not a changemaker."

Council members have said Dabakis lacks appropriate transit experience and wondered about the wisdom of nominating a board member before having a more robust discussion with the council about transit goals. Councilman Derek Kitchen said Tuesday that the city was still without a transportation director after the departure of Robin Hutcheson a year ago.

Still, council members were careful to be kind to the popular former Utah Democratic Party chairman. Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall distilled the prevailing sentiment when she said constituent comments about the nomination had all begun with "Now, I love Jim."

"I want to start there, too," she said.

She added later: "The disappointment for me today is that you've painted this binary picture of either we agree with you that the UTA needs reformation, or we don't agree that the UTA needs reformation, and in that case, we would vote against you."

Council members said they concurred that UTA, mired in $2 billion debt and accused of sweetheart dealmaking amid a federal probe into its past actions, faces challenges and needs to change. But they didn't agree that Dabakis was the best person to bring that change about.

The administration had cited overwhelmingly positive feedback to the nomination of Dabakis, billed as a watchdog figure, though he said Tuesday that he would stop somewhere short of being "Eliot Ness, coming in and blowing up the current UTA."

Trust is essential, the administration argued, given the need for taxpayers to support the city's transportation goals and the failure of a transportation sales-tax initiative on the November 2015 ballot in Salt Lake City.

North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor joined the board earlier this year and last week sent a letter to the council, urging them to approve Dabakis. Taylor and Dabakis have released a five-page "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" that they hope to have added to the board's policies about compensation, accountability and disclosure.

Said Dabakis earlier Tuesday: "I've said to the council, 'Look, if you like UTA the way it is, don't vote for me. Don't vote for me. I'm the wrong guy.' Because I am not going to sit there for two years and cast 100 percent 'yes' votes."

Dabakis' nomination follows Biskupski's request for the resignation of Keith Bartholomew, an associate professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah who had served on the board for 13 years.

Bartholomew told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time of his resignation that Biskupski had taken issue with his stance on a proposed $68.5 million relocation of UTA's airport TRAX station.

He had questioned whether UTA knew what to expect when it agreed in 2008 to pay reasonable and necessary costs to relocate the station. UTA has said it requires outside funding for the project while public records suggest Biskupski has argued against the use of city funds.

Bartholomew said Tuesday that a board member's role isn't to "bring home the bacon."

"By policy, board members are loyal to the whole region," he said. "It isn't their job to go in and try to duke it out with fellow board members so they can get a bigger slice of the pie for their constituents."

Biskupski had questioned whether Bartholomew had been properly affirmed by the council for his most recent terms, but she went further Tuesday with criticisms of his service, saying that Bartholomew was "making motions to move into closed sessions and voting behind closed doors."

Council members, meanwhile, had expressed concerns that Dabakis lacks ideal transportation credentials — a charge Dabakis doesn't dispute — and wondered why Biskupski would put forward a name that she knew they were unlikely to accept.

Dabakis, a Salt Lake City Democrat, serves on the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee; he has said he is an occasional transit user.

Multiple council members reported Tuesday that they were disheartened to see the debate over Dabakis framed in news reports as City Council versus mayor, given that Biskupski's previous board appointments who have reached the advice-and-consent stage have been approved.

Council members said they wanted more discussion of the city's draft transit master plan, though Biskupski said they already have the draft plan and the power to add such a discussion to their agenda.

Dabakis likened their request for transit expertise to a house being on fire "and we're talking about, 'Well, the plumbing is bad.' "

"We don't get anywhere in this master plan without that money, and we don't get that money without that trust," he said.

When council members suggested he could have more influence on UTA from his seat in the Senate, Dabakis countered, "I have as much chance to influence the UTA board in the Senate as I do of affecting the Salt Lake City Council."

Kitchen also wondered whether Dabakis had enough free time to fulfill the obligations of a board member.

Dabakis has said his first response to the mayor's request when he was vacationing in Mexico was "No-ish" and that his husband urged him to decline the offer.

But he assured the council that "the old horse has got a few rides left in the stable" and that he would throw himself into the job wholeheartedly for about two years, at which time he hopefully would have resolved the trust issues and paved the way for a more transit-fluent board member to add the in-the-weeds knowledge that he lacks.

Twitter: @matthew_piper