Lawmakers learned lessons from the detailed reports about the years former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott spent in office with a progressive mental illness and no way for others to remove him from office.
A set of bills that are directly and indirectly related to Ott’s case are moving through the Legislature during a seven-week session, during which several lawmakers have made it a priority to prevent anything similar from happening again to county elected officials.
“In a perfect world, when an adult succumbs to a mental illness, a disability, dementia or Alzheimer’s, their family would take care of them,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. “Their family would intervene and see that they’re getting the kind of care and respect and dignity that they deserve.
“But what happens if there are members of their staff who have isolated them from their family and hidden their condition?” he asked.
Thatcher said he filed SB38 in response to Ott, whom he considered a friend before his death in October.
Thatcher scaled back the bill to include only counties with at least five members of a commission or council, which includes Salt Lake County and five others, if they choose to opt in. If members of those councils believed an elected official had a permanent mental incapacity, they could ask the official to subject themselves to an evaluation.
If the official refused, the council could by unanimous vote take the matter to court and ask a judge to force an evaluation. If the evaluation showed an official had a permanent incapacity that can’t be aided by medication or other means, the public body could hold a meeting and unanimously vote the person out of office.
Despite the high profile of Ott’s case, SB38 didn’t have an easy ride on Capitol Hill. Cities, counties and some legislators feared the bill was taking Utah too close to allowing the removal of elected officials for political reasons, known as a recall.
Some lawmakers questioned why the bill only applied to counties with more than three commissioners. Thatcher called that “the biggest problem” with the scaled-back bill.
Some objected to the idea, saying it would create a system to “override” the will of the voters, who Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, suggested might choose to elect someone with a permanent mental incapacity, as they unwittingly did with Ott.
“Putting a legislative body in a superseding position over the voice of the people is a dangerous path to walk down,” McCay said.
Shortly after Ott’s family won temporary guardianship and had him removed from office, chief deputy recorder Julie Dole was sworn in to replace him. She’d said she had effectively run the office for years — a result, she said, of Ott’s hands-off management style.
By the time she was sworn in, county councilmembers were questioning whether she had known all along about the severity of Ott’s condition and worked to keep it hidden. But under state law it’s up to the elected official’s political party to choose a replacement if there’s a vacancy. Before Salt Lake County Republicans could do that, Dole began making staffing changes, including removing one employee from the office and promoting another as her chief deputy.
House members unanimously passed HB176, which would prevent such staffing changes if a temporary replacement for a county official is running the office. It awaits action in the Senate.
“The deputy of the office took over and made decisions that the county council was not happy with,” said Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan. “They felt there was a problem with state code and a black hole that needed to be filled.”
Dole asked County Republicans to pick her as Ott’s interim replacement but they instead chose former Rep. Adam Gardiner, who supported the bill, Potter said.
The urgency of the issue has ebbed in the months since Gardiner replaced Ott, but Aimee Winder Newton, chairwoman of the Salt Lake County Council, said she was relieved by action from lawmakers nonetheless.
“We had an elected official who was not able to make decisions for himself and it seemed that those closest to him were not looking out for his best interest,” Newton said. “These legislative changes are the kinds of tools that we would’ve been so grateful to have last year.”
“It will be good to have these on the books in case anyone in the future has an issue similar to the one we had in our recorder’s office,” she said.