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Motion to censure West Jordan councilman accused in drunken incident fails

WEST JORDAN — A vote to formally censure a West Jordan councilman accused in an alleged drunken episode in which he left the scene of an accident failed Wednesday night.

The motion to censure Jeff Haaga failed despite receiving support from three of the five elected officials who voted because four votes were required.

Councilman Chad Nichols made the motion, fellow council members Zach Jacob and Sophie Rice supported it. However, West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe and Councilman Dirk Burton abstained.

Haaga, who did not attend Wednesday's meeting, was charged July 23 with failure to remain at the scene of an accident, a class C misdemeanor, in an ordeal where witnesses say he was driving drunk. Nichols and Jacob say nobody on the City Council has heard from Haaga since the incident.

Councilman Chris McConnehey was unable to vote to censure Haaga because he arrived at City Hall just as the meeting ended. McConnehey and others said he was traveling out of state and his flight had been canceled following a massive Delta computer system outage.

McConnehey declined Wednesday night to comment on which way he would have voted on the motion.

The incident involving Haaga happened July 19, when witnesses at the Black Sheep Bar & Grill, 1520 W. 9000 South, told police the councilman was clearly drunk when he left the bar in his vehicle.

Haaga backed into a parked vehicle and then drove away, witnesses said.

South Jordan police were assigned to the case so West Jordan police could avoid a conflict of interest. The agency reported that officers found Haaga at his home an hour after he allegedly drove away from the bar. He appeared intoxicated while he sat on his front porch and talked with officers, police said.

Body camera footage obtained from the incident shows Haaga talking slowly and struggling to make sense while talking to police. In the clip, he says multiple times that he was attacked by people at the bar. Those people took his keys from him and tried to stop him from driving away, the video shows him saying.

In the statement that has caught plenty of attention from residents and city officials, Haaga also tells the officers that, due to his status as a city councilman, he is "protected."

Several West Jordan residents addressed City Council on Wednesday, speaking both for and against Haaga. Former City Councilwoman Judy Hansen said Haaga's colleagues should both censure him and ask for his resignation.

"It would be the proper and responsible thing to do. … I feel elected officials should be held to a higher standard," Hansen said.

Former West Jordan Mayor Dennis Randall agreed that Haaga should be asked to step down.

"Elected officials must strive to protect their own honor. But they must with equal vigilance protect the honor of the community they serve," Randall said. "The suggestion of impropriety is so strong that to protect the honor of the City Council and the city itself, (Haaga) should resign."

Other residents commented and suggested that any censure against Haaga should wait until after his criminal case has been adjudicated.

Nichols argued passionately in favor of censuring Haaga.

"When a public clamors with a loud shout, it is our obligation to respond. … Simply put: The public demands action now," he said.

"This is the one lever we have to pull," Jacob added.

Jacob was referring to not having any ability to formally request Haaga's resignation. By Utah law, elected officials cannot be recalled or forced from their positions unless they commit certain specified crimes or malfeasance while in office.

Burton said he wanted to learn more about Haaga's "desires" and "thoughts," as well as his intentions, at the time of the incident before voting in favor of a formal censure. Rolfe said earlier in the meeting that he believed elected officials should be held to a higher standard than the way Haaga acted, but later gave no explanation about why he abstained.

Another vote proposing a censure against Haaga would have to originate from one of the voting officials who either abstained or were not present, Nichols said.

Contributing: Katie McKellar

Email: blockhart@deseretnews.com

Twitter: benlockhartnews