Inspired by Gary Ott saga, bill advances to allow removing office holders with mental problems

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, has sponsored a bill aiming to address an elected official who is found to be mentally incompetent. In this file photo, he is shown discussing legislation in committee, Feb. 26, 2015.

The Utah Senate wants to give some counties the ability to remove elected officials who are mentally incapable of serving.

This move comes after former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott served four years with dementia until shortly before his death last year.

The Senate on Tuesday passed SB38 on a 27-1 vote to set up a process for removal, and sent it to the House for consideration.

Its sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said the complicated terms it includes were necessary to win support from the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah League of Cities and Towns. He predicted changes to simplify the legislation will come in future years when controversy about Ott is not so fresh.

As currently written, SB38 applies only to counties governed by councils or commissions with more than three members, such as Salt Lake County. It excludes cities and state government.

If an elected official is suspected of not having the mental ability to perform his or her duties, the bill would require the county council or commission to meet and vote in private on the matter.

If the vote is not unanimous, the council or commission would announce publicly that it failed and the official would continue to serve. If it is unanimous — excluding the official in question — the official would be notified of the result and given the option to resign, voluntarily submit to a mental evaluation or do nothing.

If the official refuses an exam voluntarily, the commission or council may vote to seek an order from a judge for one — as long as the county agrees to pay all legal expenses, including for the defense.

If an exam finds that the official is incapable of serving, the official would be given the option to resign or the council or commission could then again take a vote to remove the official from office.

Thatcher conceded the bill is complicated, but said it is the best he could do politically.

“I am certain that we will be revisiting this in the next few years once some of the concern from cities and counties has died down,” Thatcher said.