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Newly filed bill would remove incapacitated elected officials

SALT LAKE CITY — A lawmaker from Salt Lake filed a bill Tuesday creating a process to remove elected officials from office due to mental incapacity.

It's the first public look at proposed legislation that could address concerns about the health of Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott — a situation that has puzzled local leaders ever since the Deseret News first shed light on the issue almost exactly a year ago.

HB364, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, would establish three steps to remove an elected official for health reasons: a petition of voters, a public hearing with a unanimous vote of the local legislative body, and a court proceeding in which the court may order the elected official to submit an evaluation by a medical professional to determine his or her mental capacity.

Chavez-Houck said the bill is intended to create hurdles that are "challenging and rigorous" so the law wouldn't be used as a political weapon.

"I think we've made it rigorous enough that it won't be used frivolously," she said. "It really needs to be a bonified concern related to the capacity of that official."

Chavez-Houck said she's tried to balance the will of voters with the need to protect individual rights by designing the bill to require "extraordinary circumstance" for removal of any elected official — while also filling a gap in Utah law that has left Salt Lake County leaders scratching their heads.

It's been more than a year since police found Ott stranded and confused on a rural Tooele County highway in the middle of the night last winter — an event that launched the Deseret News investigation that uncovered concerns that the now 65-year-old county recorder may be experiencing health issues preventing him from effectively serving in his $180,000-per-year, taxpayer-paid position.

Chavez-Houck said she's not trying to target Ott, but approach the situation as a policy issue.

"This is me just dipping my toe in the water to see if we can come up with a solution," she said. "Not only to see if Salt Lake County wants to deal with it but also if the voters of Salt Lake County feel like it rises to something they want to move forward on."

She expects, however, she has some work to do to win the favor of local elected officials' groups like the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

The devil's in the details, she said, expecting there may be some concerns about the threshold of voter signatures required before moving forward with a public hearing.

As the bill is written, that threshold would vary depending on the number of votes cast in the elected official's last election: 10 percent of all votes cast if the votes exceeded 25,000, 12.5 percent if the votes were between 25,000 and 10,000, 15 percent for votes between 10,000 and 2,500, and so forth.

For example, nearly 22,000 people voted in Ott's 2014 election for a special six-year term, so a petition would require about 2,750 signatures from those voters to call for his removal.

The smaller the municipality, the easier it would be to gather the needed signatures, Chavez-Houck pointed out.

Lincoln Shurtz of the Utah Association of Counties and Cameron Diehl of the Utah League of Cities and Towns both said their organizations' leaders need to review the bill and take a formal position before expressing their opinions of the bill.

But Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams — who also serves as co-chairman of the Utah Association of Counties Legislative Committee — called Tuesday's draft "the right place to start."

"I need to comb through the details, but as it stands right now I think this sets a high bar," he said, adding that the bill takes a "conservative approach to handle a situation for which state law is currently silent."

While Chavez-Houck said she's not certain there will be enough time in this year's legislative session to pass the bill — which will depend on how much pushback it receives — McAdams said he "hopes we can get something done this session."

"This is an issue that has been discussed in the public for over a year now," McAdams said. "I think there is a general consensus that there needs to be some tool for removing an elected official who's not able to perform their duties."

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill — who's taken up investigations regarding Ott — also called the bill a "good step in the right direction."

"It is certainly better than no option and will preserve the best interests of the one incapacitated as well as the citizens who voted to ensure that a competent person continues to represent their best interests fully," Gill said.

However, Salt Lake County Council Chairman Steve DeBry urged caution, worrying an individual's constitutional right's may be put at risk, particularly concerning privacy.

"My hat's off to the representative for taking a stab at this," he said. "We just have to be sure it is vetted extremely thoroughly."