SALT LAKE CITY — The question has gone unanswered for nearly eight months: Is Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott really running his own office?
Could he be suffering from health issues that are preventing him from serving in his $180,000 taxpayer-paid position? The Deseret News first raised those questions in an investigation published in February.
A summary of an audit into Ott's office released Tuesday found that Ott does "not participate directly in the day-to-day management activities of the office."
"During the audit, we observed that the executive management activities of the recorder's office were almost exclusively delegated to the chief deputy recorder and senior managers, with very little oversight or involvement by the elected county recorder," a summary of the audit report states.
When Ott didn't show up to the County Council's meeting Tuesday to address the audit's findings — his chief deputy, Julie Dole, asked that he be excused because he had an "exacerbation" of a recurring case of shingles — the council decided to give him one more chance to defend his case, delaying release of the full audit report.
But after the meeting, Councilwoman Jenny Wilson confronted Dole and said it's high time her boss show more "engagement" in his office — or resign.
"It's time that he either determines for himself or those around him support him to move on, or he comes before us and shows us that indeed he has command of the office," Wilson said.
"The charade that Julie Dole continues to come before us and act on his behalf, to me is not compliant with what our duties are as a council," she told the Deseret News.
Julie Dole, Ott's chief deputy, said Ott couldn't come to council today because he's had an exacerbation of shingles #utpol— Katie McKellar (@KatieMcKellar1) September 27, 2016
Julie Dole declined to talk to me about findings, saying her written response will be included in full audit when its released #utpol— Katie McKellar (@KatieMcKellar1) September 27, 2016
The audit was ordered by the Salt Lake County Council in April. Auditor Scott Tingley's findings — and Ott's absence Tuesday — add to questions about whether Ott is suffering health issues that affect his ability to do his job — concerns that have swirled around the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office for some time.
The Deseret News investigation was sparked after a bizarre incident this winter, when police found a shivering and incoherent Ott stranded on a rural highway west of Tooele on a frigid January night.
Soon after police reports of that incident came to light, county workers claimed that worries about Ott's health have lingered for years, even before Ott's re-election campaign two years ago.
While the audit's findings do not answer questions about Ott's health, they appear to support allegations raised by some county workers that Ott's top staff — his deputy, Dole, and his governmental affairs liaison, Karmen Sanone — have been doing his job for him. Some claim they have been covering for him and downplaying his condition.
Dole and Sanone have consistently denied such allegations, but the women routinely answer questions on his behalf — sometimes when he is directly asked a question — and have told the Deseret News that he is running the office but isn't a "detail leader."
Wilson approached Sanone and Dole after Tuesday's meeting and shared her request.
"I think it's time we get a person that can serve our constituents and our public or there's a resignation," she told the two women. "We're there, guys."
"I'm sorry you feel that way because he does serve them," Dole responded.
A visibly frustrated Wilson shot back: "Then he comes to us …"
"If he hadn't had the exacerbation," Dole interjected, "he would have been here. … Do you plan when you have a sickness?"
Wilson said she's "sympathetic" to Ott's situation but also feels responsible as an elected official to demand answers to public concerns.
"We all know Gary's not going to come," she said. "I have empathy for him, but I have to do what I'm charged to do in accepting the role of my office."
Dole responded that she was "disappointed" that Wilson said she knew Ott wouldn't come before the council because "he had every intention of coming."
When Wilson said she'd hope to organize another meeting to discuss the audit later this week, Sanone said: "I don't think you understand shingles. They don't clear up in a day."
Wilson then stormed out of the room. Dole declined to comment to the Deseret News, indicating that her written response to the audit's findings will become public when the full report is released.
It's not yet clear when that next meeting will be scheduled.
Tingley said the audit determined that a lack of leadership is a "big risk" to the recorder's office.
"It's evident that they're very reactionary to issues instead of having a top leader be proactive about addressing issues," he said. "They're spending time putting out fires rather than having a good plan in place to address issues as they come."
The office is, however, meeting its statutory requirements, the auditor noted.
"But there could be more efficient and effective ways of doing things and having a strategic vision or plan in place would certainly help that," Tingley said, referring to the audit's summary that concluded "strategic objectives were not well-defined or effectively measured" in the recorder's office..
The county auditor strictly scrutinized the office's performance — from operations to budgeting — and not specifically Ott's health. That's because by law, there's no mechanism in place for elected officials to evaluate each other's capabilities. Voters are left to make those evaluations.
Under a specially extended term, Ott isn't up for re-election until the end of 2020.
It remains to be seen what course of action the council is able to take in light of the findings.
Ott, Dole and Sanone have refused to answer questions about Ott's health and whether he's been having trouble with his memory.
Ott has told reporters, however, that he's capable of carrying out his elected duties — although in some recorded interviews, Ott has seemed to ramble and at times sounded incoherent.
When asked in February why he wasn't responding to a direct question about his memory, Ott told the Deseret News: "There's reasons I can't do things, so that's what it's going to be."
Sanone is also at the center of nepotism allegations, since county workers, social media posts and court documents have identified Sanone as either Ott's fiancee, girlfriend or wife. She and Ott have repeatedly declined to discuss their personal relationship.