SALT LAKE CITY — The controversy surrounding Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott and concerns about what to do when health issues prevent elected officials from doing their job likely won't see a solution for at least another year.
A House committee voted unanimously Tuesday to hold HB364, a bill that would allow the removal of elected officials due to mental incapacity, with lawmakers saying the bill needs intensive study over the summer.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she brought the bill to the House Political Subdivisions Committee to gather input on the current draft, and after fielding a variety of questions and concerns, she acknowledged it isn't ready for "prime time."
"I'm asking you to help us come up with a solution," Chavez-Houck told lawmakers, adding that there is no provision in Utah law that allows the removal of elected officials other than for malfeasance or ethics violations.
Ever since Grantsville police found Ott stranded, confused and incoherent on a rural Tooele County highway in the middle of the night last winter, public concerns have persisted around whether the now 65-year-old county recorder may be experiencing health issues that are preventing him from effectively serving in his $180,000-per-year, taxpayer-paid position.
"I wish we weren't trying to find a solution to a possible gap in our state governance because of concerns related to the well-being of (Ott)," Chavez-Houck said. "It makes it personal. I put myself in that person's shoes and wish we weren't here. It's something we should have thought of before the case presented itself."
As it's currently drafted, HB364 would implement a three-tiered process to remove an elected official with a mental incapacity: a voter petition, a unanimous vote from the applicable governing body, and a judicial proceeding where a judge could order a medical evaluation of the public officer in question.
But lawmakers and other local officials worried that a voter petition would create an easy political weapon to pressure or embarrass elected officials.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said a petition could allow anybody with a "grudge could go out and gather signatures."
Lincoln Shurtz, of the Utah Association of Counties, concurred.
"It's an unfortunate circumstance we are trying to address, but there are some concerns," Shurtz said. "We certainly don't want to be impugning someone's mental capacity as a tool of politics."
Rep. Logan Wilde, R-Croydon, a district in Morgan County, the only municipality in Utah that allows recall elections, said he's seen a petition as a political tool to pressure elected officials, and he cautioned against a petition provision in HB364.
Former state Sen. Scott Howell testified before the committee, urging lawmakers to take on the issue. He told of how in the late 1980s during his time in the Senate, he knew of a state senator who may have had dementia, and his colleagues would whisper in his ear to tell him how to vote.
"This is a big, big issue and a sensitive issue," Howell said, calling it a "perfect bill" to be referred to summer interim committees.
Howell also urged the law to be applicable to all Utah elected officials, not just local officials.
Other lawmakers wondered how medical privacy of the individual would be protected, as well as how a judge would define incapacity.
Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, applauded Chavez-Houck for bringing the bill forward but said lawmakers need more time to work through the issue.
"This is such an important time to be considering this," Kwan said. "I hope it's something we continue to explore."
Amid claims that concerns of Ott's health have lingered for years, even before he was re-elected in 2014 to carry out a six-year term, the Salt Lake County Council ordered an audit of the recorder's office, which found that Ott has had "very little oversight or involvement" in his office.
The audit also found that Ott's duties have been "almost exclusively delegated" to his chief deputy, Julie Dole, and office aide Karmen Sanone — who has also been identified as Ott's girlfriend.
County employees and others have accused Dole and Sanone of hiding Ott's conditions to stay in their appointed positions, though they both have repeatedly denied those allegations.
Soon after the audit was released, the County Council called on Ott to answer questions about the audit — refusing to hear from Dole or Sanone, who regularly speak on Ott's behalf, even when he's directly asked a question.
During that meeting, Ott appeared confused and struggled to answer basic questions about himself or his office, including his address, his salary and the name of his chief deputy.
Dole and Sanone both attended the committee hearing Tuesday, though neither spoke to lawmakers about the bill. Ott was not present.
In an interview after the meeting, Dole said she thought the discussion was "interesting."
"I think it's really important that anything like this be well thought out and that it does apply to every elected official in the state, not just locally," she said. "I think it's important we hold our elected officials to what they were elected to do."
When asked if the new law would affect Ott, Dole said she isn't "aware of his health" because "he doesn't share his personal life with me."
Sanone also said it's an important discussion to have, adding that capacity issues have come up before in the Legislature.
Asked about Ott, Sanone said, "I don't know (the law) would apply."
"I spoke with him this morning. He knew the bill was up. He knows what's going on," she said.
Sanone said Ott decided not to attend the bill's committee meeting because he felt it would detract from the issue at hand.
"The real issue is broader than Gary," she said, adding that she's known of several instances in the state Legislature over the past 10 years that have cropped up but were "never covered by the press and never pushed."