Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE — Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott is followed by media after meeting with the Salt Lake County Council in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The council reviewed an audit of the county recorder's office.
Utah’s Legislature should support a new bill that aims to establish procedures for removing elected officials due to mental incapacity. Currently, Utah only has processes in place to remove elected officials if they have violated the law.
About a year ago, the Deseret News began shining a light on the curious circumstances surrounding Gary Ott, the Salt Lake County Recorder who remains in office despite lacking the capacity to answer even simple questions about his coworkers or home address.
Last year, the Grantsville police discovered Ott wandering at night in the dead of winter, confused and unintelligible. The public soon suspected that the sexagenarian recorder was suffering from severe health issues that would affect his work.
Those close to Ott have said that fears about his health existed well before this incident and even before his re-election to a six-year term in 2014. The Salt Lake County Council had an audit conducted on Ott’s office in 2016, which concluded that Ott had, “very little oversight or involvement.”
Meanwhile, the audit also found that Ott’s chief deputy, Julie Dole, along with Ott’s romantic partner and office aide, Karmen Sanone, were running the day-to-day office operations. It also became increasingly evident that Dole and Sanone may have been hiding Ott’s conditions to possibly keep their jobs.
The County Council brought Ott in to discuss the audit’s findings. According to the meticulous reporting of Deseret News’ Katie McKellar, Ott was unable to speak in coherent sentences and, when asked, he failed to properly identify his own chief deputy recorder.
This has led to at least two investigations, including an investigation into allegations that Julie Dole violated Utah’s malfeasance laws by possibly misleading state actors and the public regarding Ott’s health.
And yet, after all this, Ott remains in office.
It’s increasingly clear that the state needs a procedure to remove public officials who lack the mental capacity to continue in their duties. The challenge, of course, is to make sure that any bill is sufficiently narrow so it would not be used as a political weapon instead of a device intended to guard against a situation such as Mr. Ott’s.
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HB364, filed by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, strives to strike that balance. It would put in place a multi-tiered process that would involve (1) a voter petition, (2) a unanimous vote from the applicable governing body, and (3) a judicial proceeding in which a judge could order a medical evaluation of the public officer in question.
This high threshold would prevent the legislation from being used for mere political purposes while still allowing for a way out of situations like the one involving the current Salt Lake County Recorder.