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S.L. County recorder's health questions prompt election law discussions

FILE: Gary Ott speaks before the first round of balloting for Salt Lake County mayor at the Salt Lake County GOP convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 14, 2012.
FILE: Gary Ott speaks before the first round of balloting for Salt Lake County mayor at the Salt Lake County GOP convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 14, 2012.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of concerns about whether longtime elected Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott is suffering from health issues, a Utah lawmaker is considering legislation to address situations when elected officials may fall ill and become incapable of serving the public.

In an investigative story published Tuesday, the Deseret News reported county leaders and employees — coupled with recent police reports and an investigation into Ott's office — have raised concerns about Ott's health and whether he is capable of running his office.

In an interview last week, Ott would not respond to questions about his health or memory issues. Ott's right-hand administrators insist there's nothing preventing their boss from doing his job. However, some County Council members said they've been concerned about Ott's health but have had difficulty pursuing a course of action.

That's because according to state law, voters themselves must evaluate elected officials, and officeholders cannot be recalled unless they commit high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance while in office.

That could be problematic, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said Wednesday, because there's nothing in election law providing for a process to address situations where elected officials may be suffering from health issues that could prevent them from fulfilling their duties, but those elected officials can't or won't resign.

"I think whether it's a physical or behavioral health issue, we need to think about what happens if for some reason they cannot perform their duties any longer," said Eliason, who specializes in election law. "Whether it's a special election or something to fill out the time temporarily until their term finishes, these are all things we should talk about."

Questions about Ott's health surfaced after a Grantsville police report described a Jan. 26 incident when officers found Ott stranded in freezing temperatures shortly before midnight, away from his car, which was parked in the middle of a traffic lane, out of gas and with a dead battery. Police reported he "wasn't making any sense" and couldn't answer simple questions.

Some Salt Lake County employees have also said Ott seems to have struggled with his memory for some time. In an interview with the Deseret News last week, Ott would not answer questions about his legislative priorities or how many years he's been in office without turning to his governmental affairs liaison, Karmen Sanone, who answered for him.

After winning a fourth term in 2014, Ott will not be up for re-election until the end of 2018. That means voters will have to wait until then to decide on Ott's capability, since voters can only decide whether to keep an elected official in office during the next election, according to State Election Director Mark Thomas.

In Ott's situation, there is no state statute allowing voters to petition for a recall or call for a special election, Thomas said.

But Eliason sees a broader issue — one that could extend beyond the concerns about Ott.

"What if somebody was in a coma or a vegetative state? We're stuck," Eliason said. "It's not fair to citizens if somebody is incapacitated."

The last day of the 2016 Utah Legislature is one week from Thursday. Eliason said that while it would take "record time" to open a bill on the issue, it could "potentially be dealt with" this year.

"Time is short. It would have to be dealt with very quickly," he said, noting that he has to do more research before deciding what the bill would call for.

Thomas said the Lt. Governor's Office is "watching the issue" and working with Eliason to see if anything can or should be done.

"It's a process that could become very political, so I think the law has to be very careful and cautious in how you approach something like this," Thomas said. "The power is designed to go to the voters, not a doctor or to someone that would be able to declare someone as incompetent. Nor a political opponent, who would be able to use that against an office holder to get them out of office."

Thomas said current election law is designed to "rely on the best judgment of voters."

"Sometimes, yes, it does take a couple of years to kind of even out these things, but we do put it in the hands of the voters, which I think is best," he said. "I think most voters would say we entrust our elected officials to do the right thing. And we would hope that they would know when the right time is to step down should they need to for health reasons."

When the Deseret News tried to speak with Ott again Wednesday, Julie Dole, Ott's deputy chief recorder, said his schedule was "not conducive to an interview." She and Sanone have denied that there is anything preventing Ott from fulfilling his duties as county recorder.

"Gary articulated that he is perfectly capable of speaking for himself and he is unsure what purpose further interviews with (the Deseret News) would serve," she said in a text.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams declined to comment Wednesday on whether he would support legislation that would address situations such as Ott's because he hasn't seen a proposal, the mayor's spokeswoman, Michelle Schmitt, said.

But Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Newton Winder said "it's definitley worth looking at."

"I would love to see what the Legislature has in mind," she said. "I obviously can't say whether I would support it until I see the legislation, but I think it's definitely something we need to be talking about and looking into."

Winder said she's been hearing from constituents who are concerned about Ott's health, as well as "judicious use of tax dollars," since some are questioning whether Dole or Sanone are running the recorder's office instead of Ott himself. The two women deny those allegations.

County Council Chairman Max Burdick said Tuesday he plans to call a closed meeting next week with the council members and the county's attorney to discuss the situation.

"I want to do my best to ensure that this matter be handled at our Salt Lake County level in a manner that is fair and respectful to (Ott) and his family," he said.

But, according to state statute, Burdick said elected officials can't "interfere with another elected official's business."

"The recorder's office, my gosh, they've streamlined so much and have been for a long time, so I don't think there are any budget issues that we're aware of," Burdick said. "So are they meeting their legislative duties? I'd have to say as far as I know, they are. I mean, how much further do you go? I don't know if we go much further."

Burdick added: "Who am I to evaluate somebody's mental condition?"

County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson said she doesn't think addressing elected officials' health concerns should have to require changing election laws.

"But I do think there should be a method to notify voters of health issues," Wilson said. She added that in Ott's case, she believes the Salt Lake County Republican Party should "step in and work with him for a resolution," since Ott ran as a Republican candidate.

"This is about what is in the best interest of Gary Ott, and so I would expect the party to take a more active role in sorting this out on his behalf," she said.

Salt Lake County GOP Chairwoman Suzanne Mulet has told the Deseret News that it's not her role to remove or question any elected officials.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1; DNewsPolitics

A Granstville police officer found Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott stranded near Rush Valley shortly before midnight on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. His truck was empty of gas and in the middle of a lane of traffic. The incident raised questions abou