The Utah Legislature has taken up a bill that could have provided a solution to Salt Lake County’s Gary Ott problem.
S.B. 38 would allow a county’s legislative body to petition a court-ordered mental evaluation for an ailing elected official — but only if the body is made up of five or more members. That means the bill would only apply to Salt Lake County and a handful of other local governments.
Last year the county’s elected leaders grappled with how to deal with late county recorder Gary Ott, who remained in office despite a public struggle with dementia.
Salt Lake County leaders had urged Ott to resign his elected post. There is currently no provision for recalling an elected county official.
The county recorder's family eventually negotiated his resignation. Ott stepped down in August and died in October.
At the Utah Legislature on Wednesday, Sen. Daniel Thatcher unveiled a bill he called “two years in the making.”
He said it would allow a local elected body to petition the court to ask for a mental health evaluation to be performed by a qualified, court-appointed medical specialist.
If the doctor determines the official lacks the mental competence to perform their job, the county council could vote to remove them.
“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 Thatcher.
“But what happens if there are members of their staff that have isolated them from their family and hidden the conditions?”
Two of Ott’s deputies, one of which was his girlfriend, were accused of hiding his condition from the public.
S.B. 38 is supported by the American Alzheimer’s Association.
The process could be expensive. The county would have to pay court and medical fees, and it would need unanimous support from the legislative body. That would deter counties from abusing the process, Thatcher said.
Thatcher acknowledged the high bar a county would have to meet to pursue the removal of an elected official, but urged support for the bill.
“Do we look the other way and ignore the problem, or do we step up and accept the best solution that we can get support for?” he asked his Senate colleagues.
The bill will be heard once more in the Senate on Thursday, and will likely pass.
This story has been corrected to reflect where the bill would apply.