West Jordan • A decision about who will be the permanent legal guardian of enfeebled former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott has been delayed a month, along with a ruling over whether the news media will be allowed in court to observe the proceedings.
Because Ott is in an undisclosed hospital and did not attend a Wednesday court hearing, 3rd District Judge Bruce Lubeck said he felt uncomfortable making a decision that would impact the rest of Ott’s life without seeing him in person and evaluating whether his widely publicized mental decline rendered him unfit to have any say over the outcome.
“The statute says he has an absolute right to be here,” Lubeck said, even though there was a verbal consensus among Ott attorney Dara Cohen and lawyers for both Ott’s siblings and their adversary in the guardianship case, Ott girlfriend Karmen Sanone, that the former recorder’s presence was not necessary, given his diminished mental state.
“I have to choose whether there’s a guardian and who it ought to be. I can ask him that. He may tell me,” the judge said. “Until I get him here, I may not know. [Having him here] informs me on all sorts of levels about what I ought to do.”
Ott resigned Aug. 1 after Lubeck’s initial guardianship decision in favor of the recorder’s siblings. The family then negotiated an agreement for Ott to step aside after a year of fruitless entreaties for him to resign from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and the County Council. The county agreed to pay 12 weeks salary — $35,000 — into a trust to be used for his ongoing care.
Lubeck learned only Tuesday afternoon that Ott would not attend the hearing, in part because of the earlier ruling making Ott’s brother and two sisters his temporary guardians and putting them in charge of his financial matters. But Lubeck had left Sanone in charge of Ott’s medical care.
That split authority prevented Ott’s siblings from checking him out of the hospital — where he has been since being forced to leave a long-term care facility after he smashed a television set and tried to put a nurse into a headlock. Only Sanone, as his court-appointed medical surrogate, had authority to move him.
Sanone maintained the hospital would not release Ott unless he had another facility to go to. She blamed his siblings’ tight financial controls with making it difficult to find a suitable place, a charge they denied.
Seeing the bind he had created, Lubeck reversed his earlier decision and put the siblings in charge of Ott’s overall medical care until the delayed hearing, now set for Oct. 12-13. Sanone believes she has that authority, due to an advanced medical directive that Ott signed before his mental-health problems became apparent, said her attorney, Aaron Bergman.
Lubeck also denied a request by Cohen to allow Ott’s guardians to sell his Salt Lake County home and to use the money to cover his future medical care. Again, the judge said he wanted to wait until hearing what Ott himself wants to do.
Cohen surprised Lubeck early in Wednesday’s proceedings when she withdrew a motion to close the guardianship hearing to reporters. She acknowledged her request probably would lose out to counterarguments by The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, KTVX Good 4Utah News and The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and felt it was more important to spend time on the issue of Ott’s care.
Ott no longer watches television news or reads newspapers, Cohen noted, so the media’s coverage would not impact him.
Lubeck was not convinced, saying multiple times that he believes Ott’s right to privacy would be undermined if the hearing was open. “It seems that may cause him some damage even if he’s unaware of it,” he said, inviting all of the attorneys to opine on whether a judge can close the proceeding “even if everyone else wants it open.”
After initially saying he had no objections to opening the hearing, Bergman later changed positions after Sanone objected that some of her financial information could be disclosed in the hearing.
Nearly two dozen witnesses currently are scheduled to testify, although Lubeck pleaded with the attorneys to try to minimize the number.