Two months after a pair of top chiefs at Unified Fire Authority resigned amid controversy surrounding their use of public funds, officials at the state's largest fire department have been busy attempting to rebuild employee morale and restore trust with the communities it serves.
Since August, when former chief Michael Jensen resigned, the UFA board, which is made up of elected officials from the towns and cities that utilize the UFA, have been busy attempting to hire a new chief. Meanwhile, a pair of audits—one by the state auditor and another by the UFA board—are pending.
On the ground, interim chief Mike Watson says that he has been doing his best to improve employee morale, which he believes is on the mend, and help shepherd his nearly 700-person organization through the rockiest patch in its history.
"I think morale is about what I thought; I knew it was bad, and this has been really hard," Watson says. "We have people who work very, very hard to brand the UFA positively. I feel real bad that the organization is getting some black eyes. Right now it just is what it is and we have to get through it."
Watson anticipates that the pair of audits, which were announced amid a City Weekly investigation into heady bonuses being doled out to top UFA brass, and anomalies in credit-card and gas-card expenditures by former deputy chief Gaylord Scott, are expected to be complete by the end of the month.
As the UFA board awaits the audit, Eagle Mountain Mayor Chris Pengra, who has been acting as spokesman for the board, says a nationwide search for a new chief should conclude in early 2017.
With the departure of Jensen and Scott, Pengra says the board—once fractured in its approval of certain aspects of the department's management—has united.
"As more information has come out, it has helped to kind of unite the board on a common cause to move the board in the right direction," Pengra says. "I think all of the board members are dedicated to seeing UFA be successful and we realize that there's a definitive purpose to move forward in a way that's going to help us be successful."
In late 2015, UFA board members began to grumble about the more than $100,000 in bonuses that were doled out without board approval to Jensen, Scott and a pair of other top UFA officials.
Scott, a 22-year veteran of the department, was the first to cut ties. After his resignation, a series of open-record requests showed that the man had racked up $110,000 on his UFA credit card in a five-year span. In addition to dozens of Apple products, Scott had purchased a pair of limited-edition rifles. Scott also used his UFA gas card to buy $28,800 in fuel over a five-year period—a distant jump from Jensen's $16,600 gas bill during that same time.
Although Jensen departed the organization a short time after Scott, his powerful place in Salt Lake County politics will likely remain: Up until the controversy surrounding his management with UFA came to light, he was running unopposed for a fifth-year term on the Salt Lake County Council. Since then, an opponent named Jeff White stepped up as a write-in candidate to challenge Jensen.
As Watson has grappled with mending the UFA, he says the most important tool in his belt has been communication. In addition to speaking face-to-face with his firefighters spread out across 28 stations, Watson says he appears in a weekly video update that is distributed to all UFA employees.
Watson says he has been shocked with the level of appreciation his employees have shown for the video, which he says is a simple update on the week that passed and on what's to come.
As for Pengra, he says the board has been awaiting the audit before implementing any serious changes to UFA policies. And a key stepping stone to restoring the organization to normal, he says, will occur when a new chief is hired.
"Since things have happened and since Chief Jensen left, I think there was an initial impact that that was positive from the perspective of the employees," Pengra says. "At this point, what we have to do is get a new chief in place before we can continue that forward momentum."