SALT LAKE CITY — A bill stemming from the yearslong controversy surrounding former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott moved one step closer to becoming Utah law Monday, but not without some opposition.
SB38, which would allow the removal of mentally incapacitated elected officials in certain counties, passed out of the House Government Operation Committee with a 7-2 vote. It now goes to the House floor for consideration.
SB38 rose out of the trouble Salt Lake County officials faced when Ott remained in office for more than a year while he appeared to suffer mental health issues.
It was later revealed in court testimony that Ott was diagnosed with a form of progressive dementia in 2013, a year before he ran a successful campaign to serve a six-year term. During the time of court proceedings, he had been diagnosed with stage 4 Alzheimer's, according to his siblings' attorney. Ott died just days after the court hearings.
When urging lawmakers to support SB38, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, referred to accusations from county officials, employees and others that two of Ott's employees had hidden Ott's condition so their boss would stay in office and they could keep their jobs.
"I believe they did so for purposes of financial gain," Thatcher said, without naming Ott's former chief deputy, Julie Dole, and his office aide, Karmen Sanone. Both women have denied those allegations.
"But what if this were worse?" Thatcher asked. "What if it were actually the family that didn't want to give up the salary or the benefits? What if it was a family that was actually hiding the condition?"
It was Ott's siblings who ultimately reached a resignation agreement with Salt Lake County, approved by a judge, that ended Ott's term — but not until after county leaders spent months struggling with how to address the situation.
"The important thing to remember here is this: There was a man who needed help. And he could not get it. Salt Lake County literally had no options at all," Thatcher said.
SB38 comes after two years of work to draft a law to remove mentally unfit elected officials. Thatcher acknowledged the bill isn't "perfect," but he's hoping it will act as a "starting point" for more expansive legislation.
In response to fears the bill could be used as a political weapon, the bill was scaled back since its initial version from 2016, and would only apply to six counties in Utah — only if they choose to adopt it.
SB38 would require a unanimous vote of the county's elected body (excluding the elected official in question) and would only be applicable to counties that have at least five elected officials on their council or commission. The law would also only apply if the county adopts it as an ordinance.
The unanimous vote would then only refer the question of the elected official's removal to a judge, who would then decide whether to order a competency evaluation by a medical professional.
If the medical professional determines the elected official is mentally unfit for office, the official would be given five days to resign. If the official does not resign within that time, the council or commission could then remove the official with another unanimous vote.
Thatcher narrowed the bill to only include counties with larger councils or commissions to address concerns from the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah League of Cities and Towns that the law had the potential to be used inappropriately by smaller legislative bodies, he said.
But Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, still had misgivings with the bill, particularly with a legislative body starting the process by voting on whether the officer lacks mental capacity before a medical evaluation is done. (A medical evaluation would be done later in the process, and the legislative body can only vote to remove the elected official if the medical evaluation determines the elected official has a permanent mental incapacity preventing him or her from fulfilling the office's duties).
"That legislative body is acting only on innuendo, appearance, rumor, newspaper accounts," Nelson said. "We've got the cart before the horse, we've got to have medical evidence before making a unanimous determination that he lacks capacity."
"It's a good start," he added, "but I can't support this under its current form."
The Salt Lake County Council has taken a neutral position on the bill, with some members supporting it, while others, including Councilman Steve DeBry, have said he'd only support the bill if it applied across the state, not just a handful of counties.
Dole, who no longer works for Salt Lake County after the county GOP rejected her bid to take Ott's place, also criticized the bill in a tweet Monday.
"(I) wish the Legislature would take the time to develop comprehensive recall legislation that could be used for every elected official in the state from the municipal level (through) U.S. senators," she wrote. "This bill will have very little impact on actually removing incompetent elected officials."
But Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored the original version of the bill, urged lawmakers to support the bill, calling it a "good starting point."
Adam Trupp, CEO of the Utah Association of Counties, also spoke in support of the bill, noting "the goal would be to expand" it to other municipalities in the future.