(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County County Recorder Gary Ott sits with his chief deputy Julie Dole before the Salt Lake County Council’s presentation of findings of the county auditor’s performance review in Oct. 2016. A week later, the Salt Lake County Republican Party censured Dole, accusing her of hiding Ott’s health status.
Ott’s term currently runs through 2020. Here are the options for what could happen moving forward.
1 • Salt Lake County Council could cut funds
Gill’s office scoured the state Constitution for any option for the county to remove Ott and found that once an elected official is in office, there is no mechanism for removing him or her if they become mentally incompetent. But the council does control the recorder’s purse strings, and it’s considering flexing that muscle.
The council Tuesday voted unanimously to hold a hearing next week on changing Ott’s budget. Council members have discussed the possibility of cutting Ott’s salary to remove any incentive for him remaining in office throughout the remainder of his term.
Unknown is whether such a move also could involve the pay of his top deputies, who are essentially running the office and have been subject to unsubstantiated allegations of exploiting Ott for personal gain.
The move to look at the office’s budget comes after a week of escalating tensions between the employees running the recorder’s office and other departments and officials at the county, according to Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw. The office has used internal staff to create its own software that it recently launched, which Bradshaw said is creating issues with the other departments that interact with the recorder’s office. Any mistakes from the launch would come at a bad time.
“We’re in a cycle within the property tax system where valuation notices are supposed to be sent next month to all landowners in the county,” Bradshaw said. “The way we know who those are is through the recorder’s office.”
2 • Negotiating an early retirement
There has been talk, confirmed recently by his secretary and personal friend, that negotiations for an early retirement package may be in the cards.
If Ott was provided incentive — including continued health-care coverage — to step down early, the question of forcible removal would become moot, at least in this case. Resignation more than 65 days out from the 2018 general election would trigger a special election. If Ott resigned within 65 of the 2018 general election, his replacement would be a Republican nominee appointed by the county.
3 • Ott’s family could step in
There is no indication Ott is currently married. He has two ex-wives. He told the Deseret News he was “pretty much” married to his secretary, Karmen Sanone, who some county officials have accused of manipulating Ott by insulating him and hiding the truth about his health.
Ott has siblings in southern Utah who until recently haven’t been actively involved in his life. But if the family believed Ott was being manipulated and treated poorly — and wanted to step in — state law gives them priority over any unrelated person. They could file for legal guardianship or conservatorship, said Jennifer Lee, an attorney in estate law, and the court would give preference to any distant or close relative.
Gary Ott’s brother, Marty Ott, said the family was aware of the issues surrounding the recorder, but said the family was just beginning to consider what options it has. That includes taking the matter to court to obtain control over Ott’s affairs, but Marty Ott said family members weren’t to that point.
“There’s not a cookbook here. There’s no recipe. These kinds of things take on a personality of their own,” Marty Ott said. “We’ve had some people come forward that have been very helpful in explaining not only legal implications but other routes that may even be more helpful.”
“The fact is that that’s always been our primary concern is his welfare, his safety, and whether or not he’s being treated properly,” Marty Ott said this week. He said the family was willing to sit down with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to work out an agreement for his possible early retirement. “We want to make absolutely sure that before that happens that Gary is well served and so is the county.”
Call it the nuclear option. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, earlier this year pitched a bill that would create a framework for removing county officials from office. Legislators balked, saying they needed more time to consider the bill. They met Wednesday morning to discuss the concept again, and Chavez-Houck now has a Republican backer in Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and plenty of interest from other legislators.
Lawmakers made clear they want to tread lightly to make sure they don’t pass a bill that could allow vindictive voters or political rivals to remove an elected official they simply don’t like. So Thatcher recommended a three-part framework Utahns would have to follow to remove a mentally incompetent person from office.
If at the county level, the council or commission would have to vote unanimously to move to phase two, a mental competency exam in a courtroom. If a judge found the elected leader to be incompetent, and if the condition couldn’t be treated with medication or other means, the council could vote — unanimously — to remove the official from office.
Thatcher made clear the call to action stems from concerns over the case of Ott, who Thatcher called a close personal and political friend. He said the most recent time he talked to Ott, it was clear there was a problem.
“After about 15 seconds of lucidity he started yelling at me for taking his tools before [his deputy] quickly whisked him away and out of sight,” Thatcher told committee members.
Darcy Goddard, chief policy adviser in the district attorney’s office, told lawmakers on the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee they may need to change the Constitution to provide the framework to remove elected officials in the future.
“Our office certainly thinks if you do intend to do something, it would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment,” Goddard said. “Right now, the specific provision for removal would not allow a statute to go forward that would relate to mental or physical capacity.”
That’s a heavy lift, one that would possibly come after Ott’s situation is already resolved. Utah’s Constitution can be amended only if the House and Senate pass a bill with two-thirds majorities and it then is approved by voters in the next general election. The earliest that could happen is November 2018.
Still, lawmakers on the committee signaled they’re ready to move forward next session. They unanimously agreed to create a bill file that will become the vessel to move forward in February. While Ott was the impetus for the impending bill, Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, said he was interested in action whether Ott is still in office next year or not because Ott’s case isn’t the first and it likely won’t be the last.
“This has happened” before, Potter said. “I don’t think we know how many times this has happened.”