SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would allow the removal of mentally incapacitated elected officials and address troubling situations such as what happened with former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott will have a new chance to become law next year.
But it's quite different from proposed legislation that failed to pass in the Utah Legislature earlier this year. And it would only apply to six counties — that is, if they choose to adopt it.
The bill has not yet been publicly filed, but its sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, described it as setting the "highest bar possible" to remove an elected official with a permanent mental incapacity in order to gather as much support possible from those who fear it could be used as a political weapon.
Though situations like what happened with Ott — whose health became the subject of more than a year and a half of public questioning and controversy following a Deseret News investigation — are rare, Thatcher said the issue is too important to ignore.
Thatcher has said he once knew Ott as a mentor as a friend, before his health began declining.
"Sometimes doing nothing is the best possible thing you can do," he said. "This is not one of those cases."
Thatcher urged lawmakers to support the bill so it could be considered by the House and Senate in January, giving it the highest possible chance of passing so counties have a way to address such situations.
Salt Lake County leaders were able to work with Ott's family to craft the recorder's resignation effective Aug. 1, which was approved by a judge. But that came after more than a year of grappling with how to address the situation, while Ott continued to collect about $190,000 in taxpayer-paid salary and benefits.
"At the end of the day, this is what I care about," Thatcher said. "I care that (Ott's) condition was hidden from the public. I care that Salt Lake County came to us and specifically said, 'Please give us a tool to address this in the future and make sure nothing like this ever happens again.' This is the best option I could come up with."
The Legislature's Political Subdivisions Interim Committee voted Wednesday to pass a draft of Thatcher's bill so it can be considered during the 2018 Legislature.
The bill alters a previous proposal from Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, that would have implemented a three-tiered process to remove an elected official — requiring a voter petition, a unanimous vote from the applicable governing body, and a court proceeding where a judge could order a medical evaluation of the public officer in question.
Thatcher's bill would not include a voter petition — which lawmakers previously feared could be used to attack a person's political career — but would require a unanimous vote of the elected body (excluding the elected official in question) and would only be applicable to counties that have at least five elected officials on their council or commission.
"A unanimous vote is much more compelling than a unanimous vote of two," Thatcher said, noting that many counties in Utah have only three commissioners.
That would leave only six counties — Salt Lake, Summit, Grand, Cache, Morgan and Wasatch — where the new law would apply, but only if those counties choose to adopt the measure, he said.
A unanimous vote would then only refer the question of the elected official's removal to a judge, who would then decide whether to order a competency evaluation. That competency evaluation would be carried out by a medical professional who would then report one of only three findings to protect the individual's privacy: "competent, competent with reasonable accommodations, or not competent," Thatcher said.
He also noted that if the judge orders a competency evaluation, the county would be required to pay for it. If the judge doesn't order a competency evaluation, the county would then pay the elected official's legal fees.
The court could also rule whether the council "acted in bad faith" when voting to refer the matter to court, Thatcher said.
"So the county has an incentive not to use it unless for reasons as obvious and as egregious as in Salt Lake County (with Ott)," he said.
If the competency review finds the person incompetent, the legislative body could then vote whether to remove the person from office.
"I know it's complicated," Thatcher said, "but we've tried to keep it as simple as possible while still making sure there is absolutely no window through which this process can be abused."
Though Thatcher urged the interim committee for unanimous support, Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, voted against it — not because she didn't support it, she said, but so it's not rushed through.
"We still have questions in the air about this," Kwan said, echoing a concern raised by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, about whether an incompetence ruling from a judge might impact an elected official's political future if he or she eventually recovers from the condition.
"Is this like the death penalty for this person's political career?" Hall questioned.
Thatcher said lawmakers could consider "a million hypotheticals, but at the end of the day, my concern isn't a hypothetical."
"Well, we write statutes off of hypotheticals all the time," Hall said.
"Actually, I wrote this for a friend," Thatcher rebuked.
Because the vote on the bill wasn't unanimous, it will first be considered in a Senate committee during the 2018 legislative session. That panel will then decide whether to send the bill to the full Senate for further debate.