On a personal level, the matter of Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott’s health and ability to perform the duties of his office is heartrending. While no official diagnosis is available, he has rambled through some media interviews and was found by police last winter wandering aimlessly down a rural highway on a cold night.
From a public-policy standpoint, however, the situation raises troubling questions and exposes a weakness in state law. Utah should have a mechanism in place for replacing elected officials who, for health reasons, cannot perform their duties.
As Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar uncovered in carefully sourced reports, Ott’s leadership of the office was in question but there was little that could be done about it. He will continue to earn his $180,000 in compensation through 2020 and his No. 2 in the office will earn a similar amount. That prompted the audit to bring clarity to county officials.
The county released a summary of an audit of Ott’s office Tuesday. While it did not delve into Ott’s health, it found “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.”
The danger with such a situation is that appointed staff members, who serve at the will and pleasure of the elected official and rely on him for a salary, have an incentive to make it look as if the elected official is functioning normally when he is not. As the audit also noted, the office lacks any strategic plans to govern its main functions.
This case is further complicated by an alleged romantic relationship between Ott and his government affairs liaison, Karmen Sanone. In April, the county passed a new nepotism policy in response.
Earlier this year, state Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, spoke of the need to change the law so a mechanism exists for removing elected officials who are incapacitated but won’t resign. Such a law must be carefully worded so as to keep office holders from removal for political or petty personal reasons, but it would be in the best interest of all Utah voters and the most compassionate course for the official involved.