A Republican legislative candidate initiated court action Monday to remove Democratic Salt Lake County Commissioner David Watson from office because of his conviction on charges of drunken driving and attempted drug possession.
Joseph Stumph, who is running for the seat in House District 47, Kearns, said Utah Code 77-6-1 allows the court to remove county officials convicted of "high crimes and misdemeanors or malfeasance in office."As required to initiate such action, Stumph filed an allegation Monday with Presiding 3rd District Judge Scott Daniels' clerk, saying Watson pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanor drunken driving charge in South Salt Lake and a misdemeanor attempted possession of drugs charge in 3rd Circuit Court.
"The law is so clear that I can't believe the state or the county attorney's office did not already take action on this," said Stumph, who is not an attorney but said he has paralegal experience. The law allows such court action to be initiated by any taxpayer.
Disagreeing with Stumph's interpretation of the law, however, is Democratic County Attorney David Yocom - whose office, ironically, is required by statute to prosecute Watson once Stumph's complaint is forwarded from the court.
"It has been our position all along that even if Watson were convicted as charged, the law provided no grounds for removal. If we had thought there were grounds for removal, we would have had to take that action ourselves," Yocom said.
He said the charges Watson is convicted of are not "high crimes" or "malfeasance of office." And even though they are misdemeanors, Yocom said case history has held that misdemeanors must be related to an official's job performance for them to cause his removal.
And as Watson said when told of Stumph's action, he committed the crimes on his own time, not on the county's.
Yocom said, "That puts us in a spot where we have to prosecute something that we've already decided isn't a meritorious action. So I suppose if Watson came in and moved to dismiss, we'll just submit it to the court and let it decide. We'll look at this again closely."
Another bit of irony is that the state Republican Party had earlier also considered seeking the forced removal of Watson from office, but decided against it when Watson dropped out of the race for re-election.
State Republican Chairman Craig Moody said, "We had never contacted our legal counsel on it. We thought we would wait until the decision on his case was rendered. Once that was rendered, we were comfortable where things were. We are happy to have Dale Gardiner as the Democratic candidate."
Stumph said he decided to pursue court removal of Watson simply "because somebody should do it. A public official convicted of a crime should not be allowed to remain in office."
He said he had not been encouraged by any people to Watson, even though he recently helped B.T. Price - a Democratic candidate for the commission who was dumped at the Democrat's county convention - to protest to county officials how the Democrats replaced Watson with Gardiner in the race.
Watson, however, said he thinks Stumph might be taking his action to gain more political mileage for his own campaign.
"I would hope people wouldn't want to continue to inflict pain for their own self-aggrandizement," he said. "I'm not sure what it is accomplishing. . . . I want to put this entire incident behind me and move forward."
Watson said he is still effective in office and will not resign.
However, a new Deseret News/ KSL poll shows that 72 percent of the county residents surveyed said they think Watson should resign. (see chart on B1.)
Of note, the poll even said 68 percent of Democrats thought Watson should resign.
In your opinion, should Dave Watson resign as Salt Lake County commissioner?
Definitely should 53 percent
Probably should 19 percent
Probably should not 14 percent
Definitely should not 6 percent
Don't know 7 percent
Sample size: 250; margin of error plus or minus 6 percent