SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow the removal of mentally incapacitated elected officials in certain counties.
SB38, which rose out of the controversy surrounding former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott who remained in office while he appeared to suffer mental health issues, passed with a 27-1 vote. It now goes to the House.
But even as the bill moves forward, Salt Lake County Council members are split on their support of the bill, with some frustrated it would only apply to a handful of counties in Utah that have at least five elected officials on their council or commission — and not to city or state officials.
"The same issues could affect a human being no matter what legislative or executive position they hold," said Salt Lake County Councilman Steve DeBry. "If legislators are going to enact a law up there, it ought to be across the board, and if they can't do it, I'm going to be a 'no.'"
Even though Salt Lake County officials came to the Legislature to draft a legislative tool to ensure situations like Ott's never happen again, the County Council on Tuesday kept its neutral position on the bill since some council members were split on their support of it.
While DeBry was adamant he'd only support the bill if it applied to all counties, Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she's supportive.
"I feel like what we went through as Salt Lake County last year was awful. There needs to be a way that there can be a process to help individuals, so for me I feel like, you know, I'll take whatever we can get on that."
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, urged senators to support the bill while acknowledging that it's "not perfect," but it's a version that could get the support it needed to pass this year, and he expects it will be revisited a few years down the road after the "fervor" around it dies down.
"I believe this is a critical step," Thatcher said. "I do believe this bill is better than what we have now, and to look the other way and (say) this will never happen again, I think, would be unwise."
For more than a year, Ott remained in office while county officials struggled to address the situation until his siblings reached a resignation agreement to end his term.
It was later revealed in court testimony that Ott was diagnosed with a form of progressive dementia in 2013, a year before he ran a successful 2014 campaign to serve a six-year term. During the time of court proceedings, he had been diagnosed with stage 4 Alzheimer's, according to his siblings' attorney. Ott died just days after the court proceedings.
Thatcher proposed SB38 after more than two years of work to draft a law to address such situations. The bill has been scaled back since an initial version, drafted by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, and would only apply to six counties in Utah — only if they choose to adopt it.
Chavez-Houck's bill was referred for further study last year after lawmakers worried a provision in it allowing residents to petition to start the process to remove the elected official in question would create an easy political weapon to pressure or embarrass elected officials. Groups such as the Utah Association of Counties have expressed similar misgivings with the bill.
Thatcher has described his bill as setting the "highest possible bar" to remove an elected official deemed to be mentally incapacitated.
SB38 would require a unanimous vote of the county's elected body (excluding the elected official in question) and would only be applicable to counties that have at least five elected officials on their council or commission. The law would also only apply if the county adopts it as an ordinance.
The unanimous vote would then only refer the question of the elected official's removal to a judge, who would then decide whether to order a competency evaluation by a medical professional.
If the medical professional determines the elected official is mentally unfit for office, the official would be given five days to resign. If the official does not resign within that time, the council or commission could then remove the official with another unanimous vote.
Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, was the only senator to vote against the bill. Anderegg didn't explain his vote, but Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he shares some misgivings about the bill likely shared by Anderegg, though Vickers did end up voting for the bill.
Vickers said he wishes the bill applied to all counties, not just a select few.
"I fall into the category with Sen. Anderegg and others that it probably doesn't go far enough," he said. "I feel like if it's good for one, it should be good for all."
Thatcher said he narrowed the bill to only include counties with larger councils or commissions to address concerns from the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah League of Cities and Towns that the law had the potential to be used inappropriately by smaller legislative bodies.
Thatcher also said he hopes the issue can be revisited in future years after fears by other cities and counties die down.