Hundreds of people made clear this week they want Utah County Commissioner Greg Graves out of office, but it is not up to them. Utah law leaves no realistic avenue to oust the commissioner until next year’s election, leaving it up to Graves to decide whether to stay or to quit his $168,000-per-year job following sexual harassment and bullying allegations.
He has said he’s staying put, though he won’t run for re-election.
Utah law doesn’t allow citizens to recall their elected leaders, a mechanism available in many states, but that Utah legislators and local officials vocally resist as a tool that could subject leaders to punishment for their political beliefs.
“The biggest problem with recalls is, sometimes the right thing to do is not the popular thing to do,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. “When recalls exist, it creates a situation where the entirety of service centers around a single issue. That is a terrible, terrible way to legislate.”
Yet for the second time in 2017, a Wasatch Front county is left with an elected official residents and other leaders would rather have step down.
Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, compared Graves’ case to that of former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, who died in October after struggling with a mental disability for years. Bramble is among a number of legislators and other public officials from Utah County who are asking Graves, one of their three commissioners, to quit. Bramble added, though, that he also opposes recall elections.
“I can’t support a recall based on political enemies,” Bramble said, noting the allegations against Graves are severe enough to call for him to step down on his own. “Other employees should not have to endure the hostile work environment, the abuse, the intimidation that [Graves] has fostered in the workplace.”
Graves hasn’t responded to multiple messages for comment following the release of an independent investigation into his conduct and other reporting that showed he had allegedly playfully spanked a female student while teaching at Alta High School. Hours before details of the sexual harassment complaint were made public, Graves said he wouldn’t resign but also wouldn’t seek re-election next year to the post that offers salary and benefits valued at $168,000.
The county investigation didn’t confirm that sexual harassment took place but did substantiate that Graves retaliated against the female employee after she complained about his behavior.
“If Mr. Graves committed a crime, there’s a process for removing someone from office who’s committed a crime,” Thatcher said. But he’s not in favor of forcing an official out with the evidence currently available against Graves, adding: “What would stop anybody from going and making allegations against others?”
Thatcher is sponsoring a bill that would set up a way to remove elected officials from office if an examination determines the official suffers from a medical condition that can’t be treated or accommodated. But he has been careful to tailor the bill so that the process is set up to strictly remove incapacitated officials, not merely unpopular ones.
Ott suffered from dementia for years while employees in the Salt Lake County recorder’s office acted in his stead. Other county officials scoured the law for a way to remove him from office but found none, and Ott kept his elected post until his siblings intervened in court, gained custody and struck a retirement deal with the county.
A survey of Western states shows that only Utah and Wyoming have no recall process, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“When situations such as what’s happened with Commissioner Graves and Gary Ott occur, it’s important that Utahns be able to remove the people from office before their term ends, if necessary,” said Katie Matheson, spokeswoman for the Alliance for a Better Utah.
The group earlier this week delivered to Utah County a petition with more than 300 signatures calling for Graves to resign. On Wednesday, Alliance staff decided to support a change in law to allow recall elections.
Such reform could be a tough sell in the Utah Legislature.
“If you want to get people worked up in this state,” said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, “just mention the word ‘recall.’ ”
Chavez-Houck said she held the “extreme minority view” in support of some form of a recall mechanism, though she’s not proposing a bill at this time. Instead, she is supporting the limited effort led by Thatcher that would apply to six of Utah’s 29 counties and allow for removal of elected officials whose health renders them incapacitated.
Thatcher, who was a friend of Ott’s, took up the effort at the request of Salt Lake County.
The bill was narrowed to the six counties with more than three commissioners to appease counties, which generally are staunchly opposed to anything resembling a recall process.
The Utah County attorney’s office has reviewed existing law and found that only one straightforward way exists to remove an official: at the ballot box.
“Maybe that’s what [lawmakers] intended,” said Tim Taylor, chief deputy attorney in Utah County.