In the wake of the turmoil that led to the pending resignation of the Salt Lake County recorder, the county’s mayor is suggesting the office be eliminated as an independent entity and its duties folded into the office of the county surveyor. That would be a bad move.
The troubling story of Gary Ott and his struggle with an apparent mental incapacity revealed an inadequacy in Utah law. It's too hard to remove elected officials from office when they become unable to dispatch their duties. There are no other useful lessons, as far as any potential changes to the law are concerned.
Some have noted how the recorder’s office functioned well despite its leader being absent, trying to use this as a reason to eliminate the recorder as an elected official. But that misses the point. The people of Salt Lake County need vital property records collected and guarded by someone who is accountable to voters and no one else.
Few things are as important as being able to prove ownership of property. Any real estate transaction requires a title search to determine whether outside interests have liens or encumbrances on the land in question.
The county recorder maintains and files these records, as well as accurate maps. The office records mortgages and real estate transactions. Given the value of land and the disputes that frequently arise, these records must be accurate and free from manipulation. A large section of the economy relies on a trustworthy source to prove transactions occured and to provide evidence of ownership.
An elected recorder has the independence to operate above any political influence or coercion. If the office were to become a subdivision of another elected office, that independence would be lost.
Voters may have trouble understanding why they are asked to choose among candidates for this office. That need would become apparent if the office were gone. The same could be said of the county assessor, clerk, auditor, surveyor and treasurer. Each serves a vital role that demands direct accountability to the voters.
We are grateful the saga of Gary Ott reached a humane conclusion. In the meantime, the county is preparing to hold a special election to replace him, in which several qualified candidates already have stepped forward. That election should proceed as planned and the office of recorder should remain as it is currently structured.
Not every problem demands government action. Ott's situation was unique, but it offers no reasons to change the structure of the office he held.