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Concerns over county recorder's health renew calls for state-level action

Citizens wait inside the general public area of the Salt Lake County Recorder\'s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 5, 2017.
Citizens wait inside the general public area of the Salt Lake County Recorder\'s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 5, 2017.
Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After the Deseret News published a report Tuesday detailing its ongoing investigation into the troubles with Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, state officials renewed their calls for action.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City — the same lawmaker who introduced a bill this year that would create a path for removing an elected official from office due to mental incapacity — said she will continue her efforts to push a new law forward.

The proposed law was put on hold and referred to interim study earlier this year when lawmakers worried that such a law could be wielded as a political weapon rather than for its intended use — to fill a hole in state law that currently provides no recourse if an elected official lacks the mental or physical capacity to continue carrying out his or her duties.

"At present, there isn't a venue, there isn't a pathway" toward a solution, Houck said Tuesday. "And as we've seen in this particular case with Salt Lake County, it's becoming increasingly problematic."

Houck acknowledged there is "no easy fix" — and while situations like Ott's may be rare — it's not in the best interest of either the affected public officials or the public to allow the hole in state law to remain.

Noting that it likely won't be the last time a situation like this arises, she said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" that "we need to have something in place."

Houck pointed out any public official could find themselves in such a situation.

"I could get in an accident tomorrow, suffer a severe brain injury and suffer incapacity," she said. "Things happen in people's lives. And to not have some remedy … it's something we need to look at."

A legislative fix, however, may not have any effect on Ott's situation, whose term runs through 2020.

The Deseret News investigation has detailed mounting concerns from county employees and leaders as Ott's work attendance has dwindled and become more sporadic. His conversations have been incoherent and at times bizarre.

An audit of the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office revealed that it is running smoothly, but Ott, 66, has little oversight or involvement. He was found stranded and confused on a rural Tooele County high in the middle of the night in January of 2016 and couldn't answer simple questions to police.

Throughout the time these concerns have persisted, Ott has remained in his $180,000 per year position. Questions have also arisen about whether he lives in his home in Salt Lake City or lives with his office aide, Karmen Sanone, in North Ogden.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said a new law addressing elected officials' health may fill the hole in state statute, but it would likely not be implemented "retroactively."

Gill said an attorney in his office is still investigating Ott's situation, but no conclusions have yet been made. He declined to speak about specifics, but said all applicable issues are being reviewed, including Ott's residency. Still, he said, prosecutors would be limited by the "vacuum" in state law.

"Looking at somebody who may reach that vulnerable state, you want to make sure on a human level they are protected and their interests are being looked after," Gill said. "We want to make sure no exploitation and manipulation is occurring."

State Elections Director Mark Thomas called Ott's situation an "important issue," and one that he can't recall has ever played out in the state of Utah.

"It's unusual. It's really unfortunate," he said. "We're really going to have to work closely with the Legislature to see what we can come up with as a long-term solution. Maybe not for this situation, but similar types of situations as we look ahead."

Thomas acknowledged it's a "very difficult situation to try to legislate," but he added the matter can't be ignored. He said his office will be working closely with lawmakers to try and come up with a solution.

"As this situation progresses, I think there's an urgency for people to (say), 'We need to do something,'" Thomas said. "It may not be perfect, but we can't allow these situations to fester and grow. Just on a human decency level … there's got to be something."