County council may freeze millions in UTA funding over decision to close meetings

Posted at 9:19 PM, May 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-20 23:19:30-04

SALT LAKE COUNTY -- The Utah Transit Authority's decision to hold some committee meetings behind closed doors could limit their access to$150 million in annual funding from Salt Lake County.

County council members have threatened to cut off sales tax revenue to the transit authority unless they open those meetings back up to the public.

"This lack of transparency, lack of accountability on the part of UTA, just another chapter in more of the same from UTA, and this is unacceptable," said Salt Lake County Council Member Richard Snelgrove.

Earlier this month, UTA decided to close their subcommittee meetings to the public. Those meetings are where discussions take place on items that often go before the full board for a vote.

"That is where the preliminary work and most of the heavy lifting is done before it gets to the full board meeting, which is often times barely a rubber stamp, a formality of approving what was already agreed to prior in the subcommittee meetings," Snelgrove said.

UTA issued a statement in response:

"The UTA Board has heard the comments made by Councilman Snelgrove. Salt Lake County is an important stakeholder. We are taking Mr. Snelgrove’s comments seriously. The changes the board has been in the process of making are intended to improve how it conducts its business and to increase the ease and opportunities for the public to engage with the board and provide input. The board is considering ways for reassuring and demonstrating to the community that it will conduct business in an open and transparent manner."

Snelgrove said citizens have a right to details about UTA's operations.

"This is a lot of money, and the public has a right to know how it's spent, what decisions are being made with their money," Snelgrove said.

The county is discussing cutting off UTA's funding, an estimated $12 million a month, until they reopen their meetings to the public.

"So we are using the bully pulpit that we have in order to get their attention," Snelgrove said.

Sixty-five percent of UTA's current revenue consists of sales tax dollars. According to the state auditor, the county must pay the transit authority, but, when they pay is a whole different issue.

State Auditor John Dougall is quoted in a statement saying: "They could slow it down and cause pain until UTA, in this case, became more transparent...there is nothing in the state statute requiring the funds to be released to UTA in a timely manner."

According to Snelgrove, six of the nine county council members he has spoken with are in favor of cutting off UTA funding. They would, however, eventually have to pay UTA by the end of the year.