A Utah legislative committee on Wednesday gave its initial support to the latest, scaled-back draft of a bill to allow just a handful of counties to remove elected officials if they were deemed mentally unfit for office.
The bill grew out of the drama involving former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, who remained entrenched in office while it appeared he suffered an undisclosed but permanent mental incapacity following his re-election in 2014.
While evidence emerged showing Ott was likely suffering from health issues — including his discovery by police in early 2016 wandering disoriented — the County Council, working with District Attorney Sim Gill, found they had no options to remove him from office.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he has spent much of the legislative off-season working on a bill at the request of a friend in Salt Lake County. While Ott resigned from office after his family won court-ordered guardianship, lawmakers fear the situation could come up again in the future.
The bill moving forward at the Capitol would allow eligible county councils to vote unanimously for a medical evaluation to determine whether an elected official is mentally incompetent.
“If someone is found mentally incompetent, they are not eligible to hold office” according to Article 4, Chapter 6 of the Utah Constitution, Thatcher told members of the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee.
The latest version would apply only to counties with five or more members on their governing bodies. That council form of government includes Salt Lake, Cache, Morgan, Grand, Summit and Wasatch counties. Thatcher conceded he was proposing a bill he believed would pass after colleagues expressed concerns about opening the door too wide to remove local elected officials.
“While I wish that this could serve more counties, and while I wish that this could serve cities as well,” Thatcher said, “sometimes you need to solve the problem you can solve.”
Other counties in Utah have commissions with three members, and Thatcher said he wanted to avoid a scenario where two commissioners were voting on the mental capacity of a third.
In the six counties included in the bill, if an official didn’t agree to an evaluation, the legislative body could vote to ask a judge to consider whether to order one. Judges could enact penalties against a county council found to have acted in “bad faith” on the matter.
“If that judge does not believe there is valid reason to order a competency hearing then we’re done, it’s over,” Thatcher said.
Gill’s office said at a hearing in June it believed setting up a mechanism for removing elected officials would require amending the Utah Constitution. That would require both chambers to pass a bill with a two-thirds majority and ratification by voters.
Thatcher said Wednesday he “really can’t speculate” whether a judge would find his proposed law unconstitutional.
Ott was eventually removed from office more than a year after peace officers found him incoherent and wandering in Tooele County. Last October he couldn’t answer basic questions in a meeting with County Council members. Not until July did his siblings gain legal guardianship and strike a deal with the county for his early retirement Aug. 1.
Thatcher has said he considered Ott a close friend and was saddened by his decline. During Wednesday’s hearing, Thatcher said he wanted to avoid talking about Ott directly, but alluded to a scenario in which a chief deputy was running an office for an incapacitated elected official.
“And they refused to comply and they refused to cooperate and they refused to do anything,” Thatcher said. “There has to be a way to still get help for that incapacitated individual.”
Julie Dole, Ott’s former chief deputy, initially attributed Ott’s work absences and behavior to various ailments, none of them mental, and to a hands-off style of management. She later said she was powerless in the matter, though she effectively ran the office without supervision.
Thatcher had hoped the committee would unanimously agree to send the bill straight to floor debate in January, but Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, voted against it, saying she was wary of clearing the bill to skip another committee hearing while she had lingering questions.
One such question, she said, was whether removing someone from office would bar him or her from ever running again, regardless of a later change in mental health.
“These questions, I think they’re important,” Kwan said. “I absolutely agree ... that we need to go as quickly as we can. But I think [more time] is important to discuss and find out those issues.”