SALT LAKE CITY — As county officials prepare to use their purse strings power to help address the troubling situation around Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, state leaders also are pushing forward.
The Legislature's Political Subdivisions Interim Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to create a bill file that legislators can use to create a new law to remove incapacitated county elected officials from office — and fill a "hole" in state law that provides no recourse when such situations arise.
Earlier this year, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, proposed a bill that would implement a three-tiered process for removal: a voter petition, a unanimous vote from the applicable governing body, and a judicial proceeding where a judge could order a medical evaluation of the public officer in question.
However, the bill was placed on hold during the 2017 Legislature, with lawmakers saying the issue needed more study, and wary that such a law could be used as a political weapon.
Previously, Chavez-Houck sponsored the bill alone. But Wednesday, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, stepped forward as a Republican backer with his own ideas of how to make such a law palatable to legislators.
Thatcher proposed a different three-part framework, where a county council or commission would have to vote unanimously to call for a mental competency exam in court. If a judge then ruled the individual to be incompetent and untreatable, the council could then vote unanimously to remove the official from office.
"This is a deep, personal issue for me," Thatcher revealed during Wednesday's meeting. "Gary Ott was one of my mentors. When I made the decision to run for office, Gary Ott was the very first elected official I sat down with. He wrote me my first donation. I love this man."
But the last time Thatcher had a conversation with Ott at a Republican event, he realized something was wrong, he said.
"After about 15 seconds of lucidity, he started yelling at me for taking his tools before (his deputy) Julie (Dole) quickly whisked him away and out of sight," he said.
Dole disputed Thatcher's story, telling the Deseret News in a text message Wednesday it "never happened."
"I've never seen Gary yell at Thatcher or yell about his tools," she said. "Matter of fact, I can't recall ever seeing Gary yell. I'll think on this more, but (I) am not recalling any situations of Gary yelling in my presence."
Thatcher told lawmakers that "in a perfect world" loved ones would help an elected official step down with grace when they're inflicted by illness, but as portrayed by Ott's story, that isn't always the case. That's why, he said, a law to address such situations is needed.
"Yes, I want to deal with the Gary Ott situation," Thatcher said. "But I also want to make sure this never happens again."
However, creating such a law might not be as simple as passing a bill.
Darcy Goddard, chief policy adviser in the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, told lawmakers they "would almost certainly require" a change to the Utah Constitution to create a law that wouldn't be vulnerable to unconstitutional arguments.
A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate, and would need to be approved by voters in the next general election.
Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, said she could "see where this is going to be very tricky," but added that Thatcher's proposal "probably has some merit."
Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, said he's supportive of pursuing a new law because he worries that situations such as Ott's, while rare, have happened before and can happen again.
When he was a county council member, Potter said, "we had this very thing happen."
"We had an elected official who was not able to do her job because of cancer," he said, but the matter was resolved when county leaders "offered her an opportunity to resign."
"This does happen, and I don't think we know how many times this has happened," Potter said.