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Lawmakers Debate Removal Of Elected Officials Over Mental Fitness

Julia Ritchey, KUER

Lawmakers considered legislation on Tuesday that would provide a mechanism to remove elected officials from office due to mental incapacity.


The bill stems from concerns over Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott after an audit last year raised critical questions about his ability to perform the basic functions of his office.


Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, is the bill’s sponsor. She said it’s a sensitive and rare issue, but one lawmakers should’ve mulled long before this case came to light.


“It’s better to consider how we should handle a question of diminished capacity in the hypothetical instead of being in a place where the reputation and the well-being of an individual is hanging in the balance," she told the House Political Subdivisions Committee


"But the situation is here, the public asks why, and the challenge is before us,” she said.


Currently, state law has no provision to recall an elected official for anything besides ethics violations or malfeasance.


Chavez-Houck’s proposed bill would’ve first required a signature-led petition from voters, then a public hearing of the official’s legislative body and finally a district court hearing.


But some lawmakers were skeptical of the measure. Republican Rep. Jim Dunnigan said he’s worried it could be used as a form of political retribution.

“Here’s a person that was voted in by the electorate," he said. "And anybody that has a grudge can go out and start gathering petitions. And if that petition is successful, and it goes to the governing body, let’s say it’s the city council, and the city council hates the mayor, they can all vote, ‘Let’s get rid of that guy.’”


Some disability rights advocates also expressed concern about potential conflicts with patient-privacy laws.  


Members of the House Political Subdivisions Committee agreed to hold the legislation to give Chavez-Houck more time to refine some of the bill’s language and incorporate feedback from Tuesday’s hearing.

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