The Deseret News has been dogged in reporting on Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, and for good reason. His apparent inability to perform the duties of his office because of possible dementia is important information. Voters have a right to know such things, just as we have a right to know whether his closest aides were trying to keep his condition from the public to protect their own jobs.
But why compound that pain by reacting with a legislative sledgehammer?
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County Mayor Ben McAdams, and apparently some members of the Legislature, are talking about doing away with the independently elected office of the recorder, perhaps merging it with the office of the independently elected surveyor.
Why? Is this just because one recorder was forced to resign after a legal battle involving his own family members?
Is it because we can’t seem to understand what it is a recorder does that’s so important? Does this mean we have to wait for a similar problem to affect the clerk, surveyor, treasurer, auditor and perhaps even the lieutenant governor before deciding to do away with those offices, too?
Don’t think I’m being funny. Each of those things has been discussed at one time or another through the years. More than a decade ago, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s crusade to streamline government led some to talk of eliminating the lieutenant governor’s office. The Senate president or House speaker could be next in line to the governor’s office. Election matters could be handled by a bipartisan commission of some sort, they said.
Some people seem especially concerned to learn that the county recorder could be incapacitated (he was unable to answer simple questions posed by a Deseret News reporter) without the recorder’s office missing a beat. In all the controversy over Ott’s ability to perform, no one has found any evidence that the office couldn’t perform.
Which suggests to me a lot of people don’t understand how government works, or why independent accountability is important.
I could name a lot of offices that would function just fine without the leader being totally in charge. Maybe your office would, as well.
Woodrow Wilson may offer the starkest example of this — kind of a Gary Ott writ large. He was incapacitated by a stroke during much of the last 18 months of his second term as president — news that was carefully kept from the nation. The official line from the White House was that he had “nervous exhaustion.” The country didn’t collapse.
That doesn’t mean leaders, and accountability at the top, are unimportant.
But back to the point: The county recorder’s office is the county’s official record keeper. All records of property ownership, mortgages and other transactions are filed there. The office keeps official maps.
Records are important. They are important enough to protect from outside political influences. Maybe, as has been suggested, the county surveyor, who protects the actual monuments that define property boundaries, could handle both jobs. But then, why not combine the recorder and the clerk, as Cook County, Illinois recently did? Why not with the assessor? How many of these offices could we combine before we start to dangerously dilute the accountability of record keeping and other functions from the public?
Many years ago, a county surveyor told me how construction crews began removing surveying monuments in their haste to widen roads for the 2002 Olympics. No one in state government seemed to care about this, he said, until he threatened to use his independently elected status to file charges.
You ought to want the keeper of important records to be independently accountable to voters. You ought to want the same for the person in charge of surveying property lines, assessing the value of your house, handling the investment of tax dollars and auditing government agencies.
Especially in this day and age, you ought to want to elect the person in charge of elections.
Perhaps the Ott saga ought to lead to legislation allowing elected officials to be removed if they no longer can perform, but that’s all.
Using one isolated case of incapacitation to remove an entire elected office would be a severe overreaction.