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Council considers cutting embattled county recorder's budget

SALT LAKE CITY — After a series of closed sessions amid concerns over troubled Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, the County Council plans to use its power of the purse strings to take action.

Council members Tuesday night voted unanimously to set a budget hearing for next Tuesday at 6 p.m. for "the specific purpose of reducing the recorder's budget and related changes."

The vote comes after at least two closed meetings with the Salt Lake County district attorney to discuss a "personnel matter," according to the council's agenda.

Bound by closed meetings rules, council members have been tight-lipped about the details of those discussions, but the meetings came after Mayor Ben McAdams called for Ott's resignation following the Deseret News' ongoing investigation into Ott's well-being.

Earlier this month, the News published a report detailing a recent 45-minute recorded conversation in which the recorder could not answer questions coherently, as well as concerns from county employees who say his attendance at work has become increasingly sporadic.

The Deseret News published its first investigative report in February 2016, detailing concerns that the longtime recorder's health could be deteriorating to the point that he may no longer be capable of doing his job.

Since then, concerns from county leaders and Ott's own family have amplified. Last week, a "notice of default" was posted for Ott's Salt Lake City home, raising more questions about his finances and whether he's living in his elected district.

County Council Vice Chairman Richard Snelgrove said he believes the council needs to consider budgetary cuts in the recorder's office amid concerns over Ott's health.

"The people of Salt Lake County deserve to get what they're paying for," Snelgrove said. "And right now the recorder, Gary, through no fault of his own — even though by title he is still the recorder because of state statute — is obviously not complying with his statutory duties as an individual, even though others in his office, in a rather convoluted way, are performing much of the duties."

Phone calls to Ott weren't immediately returned Wednesday, but a response was sent from his Salt Lake County email address:

"It would be unfortunate for the council to cut an already bare-bones budget," the email states. "Cutting the budget would make it difficult or impossible to fulfill the recorder's office statutory duties and result in harm to the citizens of the county."

An audit of the recorder's office last year found the office is running well, but Ott's duties were "almost exclusively delegated to (Dole) and senior managers" and he had "very little oversight or involvement" in his own office.

Ott's chief deputy, Julie Dole, and office aide Karmen Sanone — who by multiple accounts has a personal relationship with Ott — have been accused of hiding Ott's condition in order to stay in their appointed positions. The women deny those allegations.

The county recorder's office, which tracks millions of property documents, operates under a $6 million budget.

Ott collects nearly $190,000 a year in salary and benefits. Last year, Dole earned slightly more than $190,000 in salary and benefits. Sanone earned about $70,000.

Previously, County Council members have discussed the possibility of cutting Ott's salary. When asked what the council is specifically considering cutting, Snelgrove said he couldn't elaborate on what those cuts might be because the council is still ironing out the details.

"But," Snelgrove said, "most of the recorder's office's operating expenses are personnel."

"I as a friend of Gary I wish him the best, on a personal level," he added. "I'm just hoping a family member comes forward and takes Gary under their wing and acts in his behalf. That is what would be best for Gary at this time."

Ott's family members have told the Deseret News they're exploring ways to help Ott, including sitting down with county leaders to hash out retirement.

Ott's deputy said she was "concerned" about the council's plans because the recorder's office "already has less money than what we need to operate."

"If they do choose to cut anything with our personnel or operations, what they're trying to do is make us fail so they can then take action on the recorder's office, and that would be inappropriate," Dole said.

Dole said she's "not saying it's right" that Ott hasn't been involved in his office, but absentee elected officials aren't a new occurrence. She said the late Councilman Randy Horiuchi had a similar issue and no one raised these concerns then.

"I'm not saying it's right, I'm just saying that nobody's taken action — when Horiuchi had his stroke and was barely functioning, he might show up but he wasn't completely there, you couldn't understand him," she said. "I love Randy, I'm sorry, I wish he was still around, but you know there's a whole history if you delve into just the county … of instances where this same question could or should have been raised."

Dole said she'll attend the budget hearing next week. "But it would seem if they're going to cut our budget that they would talk to us because, sorry, most of them don't even understand what we do," she said.

Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw said the council is also looking at possible budget cuts in the recorder's office because of concerns with a new software, called DARWIN, launched this week in the recorder's office.

Last week, McAdams along with other county elected officials — including the assessor, treasurer, and auditor — sent a letter to the recorder's office requesting the delay of the software's launch, worried that the new data-recording program won't communicate well with the rest of the county's data mainframe.

Despite the request, the new software was launched on Monday.

Dole, in an email to McAdams late Friday, said the DARWIN software has undergone software testing for years, was ready for implementation, and it wouldn't impact other departments' use of the county's mainframe and access to data.

Dole questioned Wednesday why county officials had a "sudden" interest in the DARWIN software, even though her office has been sending out weekly updates and a timeline of implementation for over a year.

She also said that since DARWIN was implemented earlier this week, there have been no issues. She called any concerns from McAdams or the council about it "ridiculous" and said they stem from a lack of understanding of the recorder's office.

"It feels like a setup — they're just trying to make us fail so they can come after us," she said.

In the statement from Ott's email, Ott said the DARWIN software is "working well and allowing us to meet our statutory duties."

"It's too bad that people can be so resistant to change that they won't even try something new," the email states.

A request to follow up on Ott's comments by phone was not immediately returned Wednesday.

In an interview on Tuesday, McAdams said he and other elected officials continue to have concerns about the software's implementation and the possible "unintended consequences" surrounding the new software's launch. He said any issues may not surface for months.

McAdams also was concerned about the fact that Dole, not Ott, has been handling the implementation of DARWIN and the worries of other elected officials.

"These are judgment matters that are best left to an elected official, someone who is directly accountable to the people of Salt Lake County," the mayor said. "It's concerning to me we don't have the elected official that's accountable to the voters here to present the case as to why this needs to go forward now rather than later."