Salt Lake County Council ponders oversight of deputy mayor
Salt Lake County • Subjecting official to council scrutiny may require public vote.
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Should the person appointed Salt Lake County's deputy mayor be subject to the approval of the County Council?

No offense to Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn, but Councilman David Wilde is convinced the council should have a formal confirmation process to prevent a scoundrel from being appointed to that influential post, overseeing millions of taxpayer dollars.

"In Salt Lake County, we have a process where the mayor is elected, the deputy mayor is not. The mayor can simply choose who he or she wants," Wilde said at Tuesday's County Council meeting.

"The time could come when we have a mayor who says, 'I'm going to appoint my buddy, my big contributor, who has no qualifications.' Nobody would have voted for him," added the Republican from Murray. "But he's in a position to become mayor if the mayor is unable to continue."

That concerns Wilde. So in April, he suggested an ordinance amendment that requires the mayor to provide enough information about the deputy mayor and four department heads (public works, community services, human services, administrative services) to enable the council to determine if the candidates are "eligible and qualified" for the positions.

Nobody had problems with requiring department heads to undergo that scrutiny. But several council members, mostly Democrats, objected that the deputy mayor is a different type of position, being the mayor's right-hand person.

Wilde said the county should follow federal and state models in shaping its process. At the federal level, he said, if an elected vice president must be replaced, the president's nominee is subject to approval by both houses of Congress. In state government, replacing an elected lieutenant governor goes through the Utah Senate for confirmation.

"Somewhere along the line, that [deputy mayor] ought to be scrutinized by one body other than [relying solely on] who the mayor should choose," Wilde said.

Another GOP councilman, Michael Jensen, shared Wilde's apprehensions. Jensen noted that in an emergency, it's conceivable that an unelected deputy mayor could gain control over millions of dollars with little oversight about how they're spent.

"The council should get to weigh in on those expending those dollars," he said. "This is a loophole where somebody can expend thousands of dollars and never have been elected into office."

But changing the rules to subject the deputy mayor to intensified council scrutiny may be more complicated than a simple ordinance amendment, according to an opinion from the County District Attorney's Office.

That opinion said a public vote would be needed because including the deputy mayor in the amendment would involve changing the county's form of government, approved by voters in 1999, switching from a three-member commission to a mayor and council.

To get that on the ballot would require a two-thirds vote of the council. Wilde could not get that. So rather than hold up the council's right to vet department-head candidates, he took the deputy mayor requirement out of the proposed ordinance amendment. It then received preliminary council approval on an unanimous vote. Formal adoption is set for July 2.

But the idea is not dead.

Said Republican Councilman Max Burdick: "Some issues have been brought up through this process that are good and deserve larger discussion among ourselves. What happens in terms of succession around here? … Before we go to the public, we need to think this through."

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg