UTOPIA Sued: Is there really a story here?

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Chris Hogan, one of UTOPIA’s former execs, has filed a suit against the agency over violations of his employment contract. The suit alleges that consulting firm TetraTech was awarded an improper contract for network construction because Executive Director Todd Marriott’s brother is a manger there. The suit also alleges that Hogan’s replacement, Gary Jones, is Marriott’s neighbor.┬áNow I’ve got friends on both sides of this, so this is where I tread very, very lightly.

I can’t speak to Mr. Jones’ qualifications, but I do know that UTOPIA has done plenty of business with TetraTech in the past. They are also a very large multi-national corporation with offices across the world, including two here in Salt Lake County. Even with the blood relationship between the Marriotts, I don’t see that this would necessarily disqualify TetraTech from being a candidate, especially if the work they did in the past was up-to-par.

UTOPIA has also told me that Hogan’s contract was up for renewal and they opted to not renew it. Obviously, I don’t have any details beyond that, but the timing does seem to coincide with my recollection of when he was brought on. Assuming an annual contract, the timing would likely fit.

The Tribune, however, doesn’t dive into any of this background to provide essential context here. I also noticed that they did not include any statements from UTOPIA to provide balance to the story, though I imagine with pending litigation, they can’t really say too much anyway. This is the far too common behavior I’ve come to expect from Utah’s major media outlets when it comes to UTOPIA. They present very one-sided stories and practically cheerlead for UTOPIA’s failure from the editorial pages. There are two sides to every story, but outlets like the Tribune and Deseret “News” are only concerned with the doom-and-gloom side that moves papers.

Rally Fail: UTOPIA Hijacks Utah Taxpayers Association Event

The Utah “Taxpayers” Association thought it would get an upper hand with a BBQ in Orem just before the city council voted on a new construction bond. Unfortunately for them, the plan backfired when UTOPIA made a surprise appearance at the event with their “mobile command center” and started actually talking directly with the meeting attendees, many of whom had no opinion of UTOPIA yet and came to get more information. According to my sources, about half of the 250 or so attendees ended up registering their interest in UTOPIA services, a major coup for the network that upstaged their most vocal opponent.

Apparently what convinced a lot of the undecideds was the UTA’s refusal to disclose who pays their bills. That lack of transparency translated directly into looking like they have something to hide (hint: it’s Qwest and Comcast dollars) and left many looking at their fantastic claims skeptically. I’d like to say that there were some talking points to address, but an eyewitness account called it so much kool-aid drinking, a series of incomprehensible rants filled with insinuation, innuendo, insults, and no concrete addressable facts. In contrast, UTOPIA discussed their new business plan with individual residents and offered demonstrations of how well the service can work. Truth has power and it wasn’t on the UTA’s side.

In attendance were Rep. Mike Morley, UTA VP Royce Van Tassell, UTA President Sen. Howard Stephenson, Rep. Steve Sandstrom, and Sen. Margaret Dayton (who did not speak). UTOPIA openly challenged both Stephenson and Van Tassell to provide outside oversight of their plan, an offer which they declined to accept. Considering that the UTA regularly chides UTOPIA for mismanagement and secrecy, I would think they’d jump at the chance to look at things from the inside. If nothing else, they could fabricate some juicy new attacks from half-truths. This says a lot about the true motivations of the Utah “Taxpayers” Association. If they really wanted to keep an eye on UTOPIA for the benefit of all taxpayers, why would they turn this down?

Please, UTA, consider holding more of these events. As many as you want. You come out looking like fools and UTOPIA gains even more customers and mindshare. I’ll even volunteer for the dunk tank.

Also, see coverage from the Deseret News and Daily Herald. Bonus: I’ve got about a paragraph in the Herald article.

As a side note, I saw it reported that the connections on the new plan will be $50/mo plus service, but I don’t know if that’s accruate and haven’t gotten a reply to an e-mail I sent Monday seeking clarification. It’s also unclear how much a service provider tacks on top of that if that is the case, though it had better be well south of $20/mo for Internet. You’ll know more when I do.

The Non-Story of UTOPIA and Lawsuits

Today’s Deseret News ran an article about UTOPIA’s preparation for some pending litigation, but it’s not really much in the way of news. We all know that UTOPIA and RUS aren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists and that UTOPIA incurred some significant expenses as a result of the incompetence of that federal agency. Negotiations with RUS broke down months ago and UTOPIA was still left holding the bag. At this point, they really don’t have much of a choice but to go after RUS in court since a settlement could not be reached and the damages are in the tens of millions.

UTOPIA obviously can’t confirm nor deny anything at this point, but it’s not hard to read between the lines. The question, though, is why this is being cast in some kind of sneaky and sinister light. Only an idiot would openly discuss pending litigation in a public meeting, much less with members of the press. It’s also not uncommon to have internal agency meetings that don’t require public notice. I would bet that every city, county, state agency, and interlocal agency has done the same.

That said, I can understand why someone would be heavily suspicious. UTOPIA has always struggled with putting information out for public scrutiny. It isn’t helped when the incumbent guns-for-hire Utah “Taxpayers” Association regularly takes what information is public and distorts or outright fabricates negative information about the project.

Basically, there’s nothing to see here that you haven’t already heard through the grapevine. When there’s real news, they’ll probably put out a press release.

Letter to the Editor: Utah Taypayers Association Lacks Credibility on UTOPIA

The following letter to the editor was submitted to the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, Daily Herald, Ogden Standard-Examiner, and Davis County Clipper. It was published in the Clipper and an abbreviated version is currently slated to appear in the Tribune.

UPDATE: Here’s the letter published in the Tribune.

Whenever there is criticism leveled towards UTOPIA, you will usually find the Utah Taxpayers Association screaming the loudest. The irony is that they are one of the least-qualified to criticize UTOPIA or make any commentary on telecommunications policy.

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