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Bill to remove incapacitated elected officials in works

Legislation could address embattled county recorder's health issues but may not happen this year

FILE — Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott is followed by members of the media after meeting with the Salt Lake County Council in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The council reviewed an audit of the recorder's office.
FILE — Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott is followed by members of the media after meeting with the Salt Lake County Council in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The council reviewed an audit of the recorder's office.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It's been nearly a year since concerns about the health of Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott came to public light — but it may take at least another year before anything can be done.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she's working on a bill that would create a process to remove elected officials from office if they are no longer able to perform their duties because of physical or mental problems.

But while Chavez-Houck expects to have a draft of the bill filed during this year's legislative session, she said it may be too late for it to wind through the appropriate committees, the full House and Senate and then onto Gov. Gary Herbert's desk this year.

"But I want to see if we can at least start the discussion," Chavez-Houck said.

Whatever is proposed won't be easy, she said, noting the need to avoid undermining voters' power or violating an individual's rights.

She said creating a first draft of the bill has been challenging, since she hopes to create a "hybrid" of other states' laws.

Chavez-Houck said she's been most intrigued by West Virginia's law, which says municipal officers can be removed through a resolution by the municipality's governing body, through court or by petition for reasons including "incompetence."

"Maybe we do all of the above," she said, adding that the bill may require all three: a constituent-led petition, a decision from that municipality's legislative body and a court procedure to help determine the individual's "capacity" — a tricky term to determine or define.

"I'm trying to provide a process that's really rigorous because this is such an extraordinary circumstance that you want it very rarely used," she said.

Before the concerns around Ott came to light by a Deseret News investigative report last February, Chavez-Houck said lawmakers weren't aware of this "hole" in Utah law.

"The circumstances surrounding concerns with our Salt Lake County recorder has certainly shed a light on the challenge we have if there is a concern with the capacity of any elected official," she said. "We pretty much do not have any recourse for recall or finding some mechanism for that person to be removed if it is found that they do not have capacity to serve."

Ever since Grantsville police found Ott stranded, confused and incoherent on a rural Tooele County highway in the middle of the night last winter, public concerns have persisted around whether the now 65-year-old county recorder may be experiencing health issues that are preventing him from effectively serving in his $180,000-per-year taxpayer-paid position.

County workers have claimed that worries about Ott's health have lingered for years, even before he was re-elected in 2014 to carry out a specially extended six-year term until the end of 2020.

Chavez-Houck said it's a "challenging" issue because she's trying to be respectful of Ott, but also approach the situation as a policy issue.

"In this particular case, you've got an elected official that's going to actually serve in office six years when there may have been questions right from the beginning as to his capacity," Chavez-Houck said. "And for six years? That's a heck of a long time for no recourse or no option to the public to be able to weigh in and say, 'You know what? This just isn't working.'"

In the meantime, Salt Lake County leaders are at an "impasse" regarding Ott's situation, Salt Lake County Council Chairman Steve DeBry said Monday.

"It's frustrating," DeBry said. "We've exhausted all of our resources as a County Council. Legally there isn't anything further we can do to address an independent elected official in a situation like this."

He said the issue is "delicate," "touchy" and "problematic," and he hopes the Utah Legislature can find some way to address it — because in the meantime, he basically has to tell concerned constituents to be "patient."

"We can't treat an issue like this lightly," DeBry said, adding that county officials must not be "too intrusive or violate (Ott's) rights in any way."

Amid concerns, the Salt Lake County Council ordered an audit of the recorder's office. That audit reported in September that Ott has had "very little oversight or involvement" in his office and that Ott's duties have been "almost exclusively delegated" to his chief deputy recorder, Julie Dole, and office aide Karmen Sanone — who has also been identified by court documents as Ott's girlfriend, fiancee or wife.

County employees and others have accused Dole and Sanone of hiding Ott's conditions to stay in their appointed positions, though they both have repeatedly denied those allegations.

Soon after the audit was released, the County Council called on Ott to answer questions about the audit — refusing to hear from Dole or Sanone, who regularly speak on Ott's behalf even when he's directly asked a question.

During that meeting, Ott appeared confused and struggled to answer basic questions about himself or his office, including his address, his salary and who his chief deputy is.

Since then, county officials have told the Deseret News that at least two state investigations have been underway into Ott's well-being, and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has received a complaint alleging that Dole has violated Utah malfeasance laws for dishonesty about Ott's condition.

The state agencies have declined to comment on or confirm such investigations, but Gill has told the Deseret News that his office is "taking the lead" on investigations regarding Ott while working with the Utah Attorney General's Office.

When asked Monday, Gill said investigators are still working.

"There has been no resolution. We're still gathering facts to see what we can do," Gill said.

DeBry said in the months since the county audit was released, he has heard of no developments from the investigations or any change within the recorder's office. He said he still sees Ott occasionally attending council meetings, but always accompanied with Dole, Sanone or both.

Dole on Monday described the workings of the recorder's office as "spectacular."

When asked about Ott, Dole said he's "the same as always" and that he "comes in (to the office) as he wants to, just as he always has."

In response to a request to talk to Ott, Dole said he wasn't in the office "at this moment" but she could relay the request, though she added that he'd likely decline the interview as he has done with past Deseret News requests.