This time, Third District Judge Robert K. Hilder's ruling had an unmistakable tone of frustration to it. And no wonder. He thought his ruling last November settled the question of how Salt Lake County's elected attorney related to the elected county commissioners, and here all the parties were again, squabbling over the same thing.

Little has changed since November, except for the worse. The court, as Hilder noted in his latest ruling, which authorized the commission to strip the county attorney of nearly half his staff of attorneys, "is not dealing with `government as usual.' "That may be the understatement of the year. County Attorney Doug Short insists he has no obligation to represent county commissioners or any other individuals performing their duties as public servants. Instead, he holds to the belief that his job is to represent the county as a whole. Hilder tried to set this logical contortion straight in November. In plain and direct language, he said, "The county attorney is legal adviser to the county, to the board of county commissioners and to each individual commissioner."

It was the kind of wording that left little room for private interpretation, or so most people involved in this sordid public saga thought. But in the intervening months, Short has persisted. Now, county government has degenerated absurdly to the point where Short's deputies will advise commissioners on what to do and Short will subsequently refuse to defend them when someone sues them for doing it. For a man so overly concerned with making commissioners accountable, Short seems unable to accept accountability for the actions of his own office.

Hilder said this ongoing battle has led to a situation where the county "continues to be plagued by internecine strife that is hampering, if not crippling, the operation of the government in general and the county attorney's office in particular."

Indeed, how can any county official make the often difficult and delicate decisions required of local government when he or she is left exposed to any and all legal actions? To any disgruntled people out there contemplating a lawsuit, the message is clear. Name the individual commissioners as defendants, rather than the county. That way, the county attorney will simply step aside like a nimble bullfighter.

It would be funny to watch all this except that, despite appearances, it isn't a rehearsal for Hollywood's latest Drew Carey movie. It is government. Taxpayers are fund-ing this mess, and the legal bills are mounting.