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Mental-health oversight bill may be dead

County officials said the bill was punitive and a "knee-jerk" reaction.

Rep. Nora Stephens, R-Sunset, said the bill was critical to ensure state and county mental health authorities knew who was responsible for what portion of their complicated oversight arrangement.Either way, HB352 may never surface again.

A House committee opted Monday to move to its next agenda item rather than vote on the controversial bill. That means the bill has one last chance to get an endorsement: the next and final meeting of the House Health and Human Services Standing Committee later this week.

The bill was the result of last year's scathing audit of Davis County Mental Health, which found Director Russell A. Williams had abused his travel privileges and pocketed at least $80,000 of public funds. Williams later resigned, but the entire state-county mental health service system came under fire.

Since she started working on legislation to clarify oversight, Stephens said there have been "egregious breeches of confidence," including the circulation of the bill when it was still in draft - and privileged - form.

She said "boldfaced lies" have circulated about her and the bill. "I urge all of you to forget the rumors you've heard," she told her colleagues.

Stephens said the bill carefully set guidelines for state and county authority and provided much-needed rules for private providers who contract with the state and use public money. She said if the bill has been in place earlier, the problems in Davis County may never have happened.

But Carol Page, a Davis County Commissioner charged with the oversight of Williams and his programs, said Stephens' bill was punitive and unfairly harsh to counties.

Marilyn Mitchell, director of the Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said those truly hurt by abuses like the one in Davis County are those in need of the mental-health services. She supported the bill and said any county that practices reasonable financial safeguards should support it, too.

Stephens said the bill wasn't heavy-handed but a way to make sure no one is devastated the way Williams - whom she considers a friend - was by a lack of knowledge on which entity should be overseeing what.

"I view this as a support for local agencies rather than a hit against them," she said.

Mark Walsh, associate director of the Utah Association of Counties, said earlier versions of the bill were "very unacceptable" to county officials, and he wanted time for those officials to see Stephens' most recent substitutions before the committee made a decision. He also questioned the "punitive nature" of the bill toward county commissioners, who are charged with overseeing local mental-health programs run by state and federal money.

"There is no deliberate effort made to misuse public funds," Walsh said. "We have some concerns with the tenor of this bill."

Stephens began work on the legislation at the request of an interim committee which received the audit report in November. Rep. Mary Carlson, D-Salt Lake, said she was frustrated by the need for something to be done, but she and other lawmakers stopped short of saying what the solution was.

Stephens, the well-respected chairwoman of the committee, told her colleagues they were "essentially killing" the bill by not passing it out of the committee for further debate on the House floor.