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Is something wrong with Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott?

No, he said Tuesday, beyond a recurring severe case of shingles and the lingering effects of a bad hand injury suffered in a summer gardening accident.

But a frigid late-night incident a month ago in remote Tooele County, where police officers rescued a befuddled and incoherent Ott near his disabled car, have revived concerns around the Salt Lake Government Center that Ott's cognitive skills are impaired to the point he can't fulfill his duties.

The subject arose during November budget discussions after Ott's chief deputy, Julie Dole, fielded all of the County Council questions about the recorder's office.

While several county officials said they didn't feel qualified to assess anyone's mental condition, there was enough concern that council members sought the district attorney's opinion on what their options were. Mayor Ben McAdams also retained an outside law firm to do an independent investigation of a former employee's complaints, which included a perception that "Mr. Ott's capacity is diminishing."

The inquiries separately concluded the mayor and council cannot do much because Ott is an independently elected official, answerable to the voters, not to them. Last elected in 2014, his current term runs through 2020.

To complicate matters, the outside report from the law firm Holland & Hart found no violations of county policies or state law within Ott's office. County officials have received no complaints from other individuals or agencies about the recorder's office not doing its work. And an "employee engagement study" released Tuesday, concluded worker satisfaction in Ott's office was "at or above" the county average, said human resources director Michael Ongkiko.

"I'm going to be here for a while," the 64-year-old Ott, the Republican county recorder since 2001, said in an interview with The Tribune Tuesday afternoon in his office, flanked by Dole and his office assistant, Karmen Sanone.

"Why? It makes me alive," he added. "The staff I have is great. This place here is worth fighting for. I feel like I'm doing a really good job. We have built something and I want to stay. … If I get to the point where I don't think I can do it anymore, I'll be the first to step up and walk away."

Ott acknowledged, however, that "I had a little problem a little while ago" and had a hard time explaining how he came to be wandering Jan. 29 on the Mormon Trail Road in western Tooele County, other than to say "I was in the wrong place. Then it got dark."

At 11:05 p.m., Grantsville Police Sgt. Michael Jones found Ott, inadequately dressed for the 19-degree weather, walking toward Rush Valley after leaving his car in the northbound lanes with no lights on. The battery was dead and it was out of gas.

"Gary was not able to comprehend or answer simple questions," Jones said in his report. "Gary said he was with his people and vegetables."

Jones was joined later by Tooele County Deputy Derek Brummel, whose incident report noted that a Smith and Wesson handgun was located in Ott's vehicle during a search by Jones, who was looking to find some family contacts for the recorder.

When Brummel asked Ott simple questions, he reported, "Gary knew his name but that was the only question that he knew."

Sanone came to his defense Tuesday, offering an explanation that Ott had set out to find some farm machinery parts but got lost, then stuck, had to dig himself out and finally ended up out of gas.

"He was out there for 15 hours without food, drink or clothes for the cold weather," she said, adding there was little wonder Ott was dazed and confused.

Her willingness to provide an answer for Ott's behavior that night figures into a prevalent County Government Center perception that Sanone and Dole are covering for the recorder, doing all the work while he is nominally in charge, pulling down a $144,600 salary with another $35,000 in benefits.

County records show Dole earns $180,000 in salary and benefits while Sanone's salary is $56,341 with $9,600 in benefits.

Dole and Sanone denied that view, contending Ott still gives all the orders and they follow his instructions. Added Ott: "We have built something and I want to stay. I can still do many things. I am ready to keep building this as long as I can and I'm not nearly ready to go."

While Holland & Hart investigator Lois Baar found no legal basis to the complaint she reviewed for McAdams, she added "there clearly is some dysfunction in the Recorder's Office that provides fertile ground for [the] complaints."

Baar noted that non-management office employees "gave specific examples of an apparent diminished capacity [for Ott] and some were resentful that his girlfriend was hired to walk him through his job."

The girlfriend is a reference to Sanone. She and Ott declined to discuss the nature of their out-of-work relationship Tuesday. "There was no finding of nepotism" in the Holland & Hart report, Sanone pointed out. "We don't live together or co-mingle our finances."

Still, investigator Baar observed, "the net effect of this situation is that management is perceived as keeping a secret, not a helpful condition in the work environment."

And that has been an ongoing concern for councilwomen Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, and Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican.

Wilson voted against funding a new employee in the recorder's office because she felt Ott's salary was not being fully utilized — "I was trying to exercise the limited authority I do have while showing compassion for him" — and said she tried to talk him into a "graceful exit. Whatever tools we had to support him, I was willing to go to bat for him. I would still make that offer."

Similarly, Newton said she is not satisfied with the explanations by Dole and Sanone that Ott is fully in charge.

"Nobody wants to embarrass Gary," she added. "He has served the county for a long time and deserves to go out respectfully."