The conflict raging at the Salt Lake County government center is beginning to resemble a mud bog. Perhaps only a court can drain this particular political swamp.
As a draft of an opinion by the commission's newly hired attorney made clear last week, County Attorney Doug Short has a job with conflicts built in. He is charged both with advising the county legally and with making sure the commission doesn't do anything illegal or unjust. He becomes, in effect, the advocate both for county commissioners and for the public that elected him - a dual role that seems to be sliding all involved deeper into the quagmire.The ultimate answer may be to change the system, allowing the commission to hire its county attorney. But that raises the question of how to protect the public's interests. County commissioners act as both the legislative and executive branches of government. The public needs the benefit of an elected office that can check this power.
But while all sides ruminate over these riddles, one thing ought to remain clear: The people of Salt Lake County would be ill-served if the county attorney were prohibited from discussing matters with the media as he sees fit.
Patrick Shea, the man commissioners hired to be their private attorney and to attempt to mediate the dispute, has suggested Short violated his "duty of loyalty" to the commission by telling a Deseret News reporter what went on during a closed meeting. Shea sent a letter to the Utah State Bar asking for an informal opinion on the matter.
The problems with such a "duty of loyalty" should be obvious. In this case, the county attorney believed the commission was violating the law by discussing hiring an outside attorney. The commission reached that point after Short had tried to veto several of its executive decisions.
Regardless of the merits of Short's concerns, if he believes the public's business is being handled improperly he must be free to tell the public - the one party that ultimately is affected - regardless of the canons that govern the conduct of attorneys.
Loyalties become difficult to follow when a person is elected by the public to advise a political body that also is elected by the public. If the attorney's loyalty is found to run only toward the county commission, county government will become more closed and insulated from the people it serves.
If a silver lining is to be found, it is that Short and the commission have decided to try working out their differences peacefully - although that may have been difficult to understand amid all the shouting at a meeting Friday.
Cooperation always is preferable to litigation, and open government is preferable to secrecy. In this case, however, the built-in conflicts over the role of the county attorney may be too large for a compromise.