Commissioners in four counties may be in danger of losing their jobs because they belong to the board of directors of corporations that provide mental health services to their counties.
An informal opinion released Tuesday by Assistant State Attorney General Linda Luinstra said the state's Ethics Act prohibits public officers from any professional involvement where confidential information might be disclosed or where they might use influence to gain special privileges.Commissioners closely involved with private corporations that contract with the county are likely to meet those conditions and are likely to violate the "terms and spirit" of the law.
The law also prohibits such a commissioner from participating in any transactions between the county and the corporation.
"Clearly the county commissioner who is also an officer or director of the corporation which is contracting with the county for state funds to provide mental health services has a serious conflict of interest problem," Luinstra said in the opinion.
The Bear River, Davis, Four Corners and Uintah mental health authorities each include at least one member who sits on the board of the corporation with which the authority has contracted.
The mental health authorities are composed of local county commissioners.
Salt Lake County, the only other county that has privatized its mental health services, does not have a commissioner serving on the corporate board.
Membership on the corporate boards is typically rotated among commissioners.
In Davis County, Commissioner Gayle A. Stevenson sits on the corporate board of Davis County Mental Health, the company that provides that county's mental health services, officials said.
The opinion, which is not binding, was requested by Norman G. Angus, executive director of the state's Social Services Department. The opinion does not address specific allegations. It answers general questions about the relationship of counties and mental health providers.
Angus was not available for comment Tuesday. Officials in his office said he had not yet seen the opinion.
Luinstra said the law provides strict penalties, including dismissal from office. If the act has been violated, governments also may void contracts with mental health providers and not return any money that has been received.
"Due to the stringent nature of the penalties for violations of the act, county commission members ought to be extremely careful in their involvement with public or private contract providers which are also contracting with the county commission and/or the local mental health authority," the opinion said.
"Certainly a county commissioner . . . is in a position to become aware of information which would be helpful to a contract bidder in preparing its bid for the mental health contract and in providing acceptable reports and other data to the commissioner in order to maintain its contract."