Hundreds of marriage applicants were turned away at the Weber County clerk’s office Saturday afternoon after they had been told the office would open to issue licenses for one hour.
Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch personally handed out an apology letter to each Utahn who stood in line outside the county’s offices for hours in the freezing cold Saturday afternoon in anticipation of applying for marriage licenses.
Officials at the Ogden office had previously announced they would open between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to handle an influx of applications, after a federal judge declared Utah’s same-sex marriage ban invalid on Friday.
"I want to personally apologize for the confusion today," Hatch wrote in the statement. "I intended to open the office on Saturday for logistical reasons in anticipation of a large volume of marriage applicants on Monday.
"I did not anticipate the security requirements of opening the county building."
More than two hundred people stood in line Saturday — some for as long as two hours, according to those who witnessed the scene in Ogden — only to be turned away about 1:30 p.m.
Hatch later explained to The Salt Lake Tribune that he made the decision to open for an hour on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. — just an hour and a half before show time. It barely gave him enough time to solicit extra help from his deputy and staff, let alone notify the county’s contracted security detail.
Other tenants in the building —including federal government offices — expressed concerns about opening the county offices to the crowd without any security measures in place.
Hatch had also been advised that opening the office for "special circumstances" may violate equal-protection laws, as the county had never before opened on a Saturday to accommodate a particular group or event.
"It looked like we’d be making a special accommodation for a particular group and we’ve never done that before," he said. "Even though that’s not why I did it, legally, the argument could be made."
Hatch noted that had the offices been able to open Saturday, anyone could have come down to apply for a marriage license — opposite-sex as well as same-sex couples.
About 1 p.m., the time at which the office had promised to open its doors to the eager marriage applicants outside, Hatch made the "difficult" decision to remain closed.
"I felt horrible that I made people stand outside in the cold, some of them for a couple of hours, based on a promise or decision I had made, only to turn around and tell them no," Hatch said. "I felt bad about that. As a public servant it’s my responsibility to be out there and face them directly and talk to them personally."
So, he drafted a letter, put on his jacket and went outside to apologize.
Though clearly disappointed, Hatch said, the crowd was largely understanding and accepted his explanation.
He told individuals to return on Monday, when the office will open at its usual 8 a.m.
The Weber County clerk’s staff will open an increased number of terminals equipped to handle marriage applications on Monday and Tuesday in an attempt to process as many as possible before the Christmas holiday. The office will close at noon on Tuesday.
"There were a lot of people here who were really excited to get their marriage licenses today," said Max Green, a Weber County resident who works as Equality Utah’s assistant manager of community programs. "They left disappointed."
Hatch dismissed the notion that there was any political motivation behind either of his decisions Saturday — to open the office and issue marriage licenses for an hour, or, ultimately, to stay closed.
Green, who went to the Weber County office building Saturday to make sure Hatch "kept his promise," said he was satisfied by the genuine apology the crowd was given. But added he would have preferred there be no need for one.
Weber was the only county that offered or attempted to open its clerk’s office on Saturday following Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling.
All other county clerk’s offices will be open — as usual — on Monday morning.
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