SALT LAKE CITY — Aiming to fill a "watchdog" role on the Utah Transit Authority's board of trustees, Mayor Jackie Biskupski has appointed state Sen. Jim Dabakis as Salt Lake City's new representative.
"This UTA issue, it goes back for generations," Dabakis said in a Facebook Live video Wednesday, when he and Biskupski announced his appointment. "(The board) says they've got it taken care of, I'm keeping an open mind, but I tell you, this will work. They can't put me in a dark room and have me vote automatically. I'm going to know what's going on."
The senator was referring to UTA's scandal-tainted past, 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.
Dabakis said his aim is to help UTA regain public trust.
"That's what this is about," Biskupski said, "is having a watchdog on this board who will really do what we need done, and that is to help build trust again."
Dabakis said he's no transportation expert, "but I'll tell you what I do know," he said. "I know honesty. I know speaking out. I know backroom deals. I know problems. And I know when a board structure is working and when it's not working."
Dabakis pledged that he'll "never take a salary, an expense check, a vacation or a businesses trip or a meal" from UTA.
"Never, ever, ever. Hold me to that," Dabakis said.
Dabakis' nomination comes a month after Biskupski ordered the resignation of Salt Lake City's last board member, Keith Bartholomew, an associate professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. He served 13 years on the board.
At the time, Biskupski's spokesman Matthew Rojas said the mayor believed the city needed new and better representation on the UTA board.
"It's super important that we get the transit service we need," Biskupski said Wednesday. "I know we will have to go to the people at some point to ask for funding so we can get transportation built in this community and the service established. That is truly needed."
In a statement issued later Wednesday, Biskupski said her "top priority" was to find someone who could represent Salt Lake City on the board in an "honest and forthright manner."
"Jim is well-known amongst his peers and the public for his passion and his willingness to serve as a watchdog for the Utah taxpayer," Biskupski said.
Biskupski also said the city's transit master plan indicates that the current regional transit model serves commuters well, but "we have had less success providing service to those who travel within the city."
"We need someone on the board committed to fulfilling the capital city's unique transit needs," the mayor said. "In the end, any upgrades to Salt Lake City's transit network are going to require partnership with UTA and additional investment. If we are going to get people out of their cars and onto buses and trains, we need a transit agency that has the full faith of the taxpayers of this city and state."
Dabakis said he considers the appointment "one of the most important assignments of my political career."
“The people of Salt Lake City are in desperate need for better public transportation options, and it is clear to me that a lack of trust in our transit authority is what is holding us back — I hope I can help fix that," he said.