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Bill to remove mentally unfit elected officials passes Utah House

FILE - Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, speaks at a press event in the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. A proposal to add electronic data and communications to the Utah Constitution protection against unreasonable sear
Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, speaks at a press event prior to Gov. Gary Herbert signing SCR9, a resolution the state Legislature unanimously passed earlier this year declaring pornography a public health crisis. The signing was held in the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 19, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The bill inspired by the controversy that swirled around former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott cleared a big hurdle Thursday.

SB38, which would allow the removal of mentally incapacitated elected officials in a handful of counties, cleared the House on a 44-24 to vote.

It previously passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote, but it will return to the Senate floor because of an amendment made in the House to clarify language. If senators stick to their previous votes, the bill's next stop will be Gov. Gary Herbert's desk.

SB38 rose out of the trouble Salt Lake County faced when Ott remained in office for more than a year while he appeared to suffer mental health issues. It was later revealed in court testimony that Ott was diagnosed with a form of progressive dementia in 2013, and 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 hearings.

The bill, which would only apply to six counties in Utah, for the most part has sailed smoothly through the legislative process.

But Thursday it received the most opposition it's seen, with lawmakers arguing on the House floor that it could create a dangerous political weapon and override voters' will.

"I am not in favor of having people with mental illness serving in office, but I am equally not in favor of overcoming the vote of the people on an issue, especially when they've chosen an elected official," said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.

McCay said the "burden" of "overriding the voice of the people" does not "outweigh the benefit." He noted that while the Utah Constitution states mentally incompetent individuals are not permitted to hold office, the state currently does not require a mental capacity test when elected officials file for office.

"Is it possible that voters would want somebody who has a diminished mental capacity to serve in office for a specific reason?" he asked.

"I assume that's possible," the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, responded.

But Hall urged support of the bill, saying the state needs a process to "comply" with its constitution. He said Salt Lake County "begged" for a tool so what happened with Ott would not happen again.

Hall acknowledged it would only apply to six counties — those with legislative bodies of more than five members — but he said the bill was written that way to gain support from the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties, which worried it would have a greater chance to be used as a political weapon on smaller bodies.

Hall also noted that the law would be "100 percent optional," as counties would need to first adopt the statute as an ordinance before it could be used.

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.