SALT LAKE CITY — The story of late Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott left a mark of struggle and tragedy on the county. But now, it's also one that's close to leaving a mark on Utah law.
SB38, a bill inspired by the political and legal challenges that swirled around Ott as he spent more than three years in office while suffering a progressive form of dementia, received official approval from the Utah Legislature on Friday.
If signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, it would set in statute a multi-step process for certain counties to remove elected officials from office if they are determined to have a permanent mental incapacity.
The law would only apply to counties that adopt it as an ordinance and would allow removal only after a medical evaluation by a medical professional finds the elected official suffers from a permanent mental incapacity and the legislative body votes unanimously for removal.
Salt Lake County leaders applauded legislators for passing what they called a necessary change to help prevent what happened to Ott from happening again — though they acknowledged the bill has its flaws.
As written, it would only apply to six of Utah's 29 counties — and not city or state offices. Its sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, narrowed it so it could get the support it needed and address fears that it could be used as a political weapon on legislative bodies that have less than five members.
"I'm grateful the Legislature stepped up to help address what's really been a difficult chapter for Salt Lake County," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said Friday after the bill got final approval from the Senate.
Following a Deseret News investigation into Ott, who appeared to be suffering health issues that prevented him from doing his job while he continued to earn nearly $190,000 in taxpayer-paid salary and benefits, county officials grappled with few legal options to turn to.
It wasn't until more than a year later, after Ott's siblings obtained temporary guardianship over Ott and struck a judge-approved resignation deal with Salt Lake County, that Ott resigned from public office.
Meanwhile, accusations flew that his top employees, Julie Dole and Karmen Sanone, covered up his health status so they could keep their jobs in the recorder's office. Both women have denied those accusations.
It was later revealed in court testimony that Ott was diagnosed with a form of progressive dementia in 2013, more than a year before his successful campaign to serve a six-year term. During the time of court proceedings, he had been diagnosed with stage 4 Alzheimer's, according to his siblings' attorney. Ott died in October, just days after the court hearings.
Though McAdams said what happened to Ott was "rare and may not happen again for a very long time," he said he's grateful lawmakers have worked to approve a "tool" the county wished it had last year. The mayor is hopeful the bill might be expanded to include other jurisdictions in the future.
"I hope the governor signs it," McAdams said. "It's a bill that's received broad consensus, and so I think it's the right thing to do."
Herbert has not publicly expressed any concerns about SB38 as it's made its way through the House and Senate. In response to a request for comment, his spokesman, Paul Edwards, said the governor will review the bill when he returns from meetings in Washington D.C.
Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton also said she hopes the governor signs the bill.
"Last year was so frustrating for us because we didn't have any tools to help our recorder make a graceful exit when he wasn't capable of making those decisions for himself," she said.
Councilman Steve DeBry, who was council chairman during last year's controversy, had previously expressed frustration that SB38 wasn't broad enough and should apply to all local offices. But Friday, he applauded legislators for "taking this by the horns and dealing with it."
"I'm not kicking a gift horse in the mouth, but I'm grateful they're giving us a tool to work with if we need it — and let's hope we never need it again," he said.4 comments on this story
Ott's sister, Kathy Chamberlain, also lauded legislators for passing the bill — calling it "necessary" to protect future elected officials from what happened to her brother.
"It breaks our hearts that his name will be associated with this, but I do think it's necessary because things happen to people when they're in office, whether it be stroke or dementia or whatever," she said. "The counties need to have an avenue to remove them from office and not have it go on so long."