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Lawmakers considering 2 more bills related to Gary Ott controversy

Expanded state's nepotism laws, restrictions on temporary manager's power sought

SALT LAKE CITY — As lawmakers mull whether they should pass a law to remove mentally incapacitated officials from office, two other bills this year have been inspired by the controversy that surrounded former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott.

The bills relate to two of Ott's employees — Julie Dole and Karmen Sanone — who helped run the recorder's office while Ott appeared to suffer mental health issues, a problem county officials grappled with until Ott's siblings reached a resignation agreement to end his term last summer.

It was later revealed in court testimony that Ott had been diagnosed with stage 4 Alzheimer's, according to his siblings' attorney. Ott died just days after court proceedings.

Dole and Sanone were both accused by county officials, employees and others of hiding Ott's condition to keep their positions in the recorder's office. Both women have denied those accusations.

One bill, HB176, would prevent a temporary replacement of an elected official from making significant budget or staffing changes — a bill Salt Lake County officials are supporting in response to what happened after Ott's judge-approved resignation took effect and his chief deputy, Julie Dole, was automatically sworn in.

Dole — though she would only be in place for a few weeks until the county GOP voted on a new recorder — promoted staffer Kenneth Richmond to chief deputy, replaced a portrait of Ott hanging in the recorder's office with a portrait of her, and made other signage changes. Seventeen days later, Dole failed to garner enough support from the party, and Adam Gardiner was selected to take her place.

"This bill is needed," said its sponsor, Rep. Val Potter, R-Logan, while presenting it to a House committee Friday.

Darcy Goddard, chief policy adviser for the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office, said when Dole started making staffing and other changes "that caused concern given the circumstances of her being in that position."

"We saw what happens when you don't have procedures in place to account for what happens when a temporary manager comes in," Goddard said. "Even though it's generally for a short period of time ... that time matters because you need to have a lack of chaos in government, and you need to be able to continue providing services, and that was very difficult in Salt Lake County."

HB176 would specify that a temporary manager would not take the oath of office, may not change any compensation of an employee unless approved by the county legislative body, may not promote or demote an employee, or may not spend more than 5 percent of an expenditure that was planned before the elected official's seat was vacated without approval from the county council.

It would also allow the county council, in some circumstances, to remove the manager with a unanimous vote, but Potter agreed to remove that provision from the bill after Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, worried that would shift too much power to the county council. The House Government Operations Standing Committee voted on Friday to hold the bill in committee to make the changes.

Another bill, HB133, would expand the state's nepotism law to include dating partners rather than just relatives.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, said he drafted the bill directly in response to concerns about the relationship between Ott and his employee, Karmen Sanone.

"We don't want situations where dating partners are supervising or hiring their partner," Hall said Friday. "I just don't think that's good public policy, and we've seen, unfortunately, through experience that that's not a good idea."

While Ott was in office, Sanone refused to comment on her relationship with him, but county employees alleged a personal relationship between Sanone and her boss was "common knowledge." She had also had been identified as Ott's fiancee, girlfriend or wife in court documents, police reports and social media posts

Later, Sanone engaged in a court battle with Ott's siblings in a dispute over who should be Ott's legal guardian. In court, Sanone's attorney referred to her as Ott's "significant other," and argued Ott would want her to be his guardian because Ott wanted to be with her and live with her on her farm in North Ogden.

Last year, the state auditor wrote a letter to the Salt Lake County Council notifying them Sanone "appears to have cohabitated" with Ott and the arrangement appeared to have violated the county's nepotism policies.

Hall's bill has been sent to the House Business and Labor Committee for a hearing.