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After calling in sick last week, Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott showed up Tuesday to respond to an audit of his office's performance for the County Council.

His befuddled answers to question after question left a roomful of county employees — people who have known and liked the amiable recorder for a dozen years — wincing as the 64-year-old struggled to understand even the simplest queries.

"What's your address?"

"What's your chief deputy's name?"

"Are taxpayers getting their money's worth out of you when this audit says you're rarely in the office?"

"Are you being manipulated by people on your staff?"

Time and again, Ott's barely audible responses wandered off into descriptions of an accident he had with his hand, or his shingles, or his mantra that he has the best staff in the world and they all work together.

But when it came to answering questions put directly to him, Ott couldn't do it.

"Anyone who saw what happened in there cannot but feel concern on a human level," County District Attorney Sim Gill said later.

To be sure, the recorder had a cogent moment or two.

He admitted his prolonged case of shingles "has made me a little bit weird yet. This thing beat the hell out of me. Well, what I did, is what I do. I'll make the thing work and make it happen. I've done this all my life. Yeah, I was down for a bit. It happens to some people. I still work. I still come to make sure it's working."

But the performance audit of the recorder's office that the council accepted Tuesday from County Auditor Scott Tingley found Ott was rarely involved in the office's day-to-day management.

Council members had requested the audit after both they and Mayor Ben McAdams' office determined they had few other recourses to deal with the independently elected official widely believed to be suffering from diminishing cognitive skills.

Ott's aide and girlfriend, Karmen Sanone, later disputed the assertion Ott wasn't deeply involved in his office operations, saying he either goes into the office or calls chief deputy Julie Dole every day.

Some of Tuesday's questioning revolved around a suspicion that Dole and Sanone are manipulating Ott, propping him up in the roughly $150,000-a-year job while running the office well enough that Tingley's audit found it complies with all state and county laws, generates few complaints from the public and delivers its services at reasonable prices.

"I don't know who told you not to wear your hearings aids," Councilman Sam Granato said at one point, instructing Ott to "read my lips" after Dole blamed the recorder's inability to comprehend early questions on his hearing problems. Sanone later said she didn't know why Ott wasn't wearing them Tuesday, but added that hearing-aid wearers often don't use them in crowded rooms because of background-noise problems.

Granato wasn't buying that line, hinting that relying on deafness was a ploy and offering instead that "there's probably some manipulation going on in your office."

Councilwomen Jenny Wilson and Aimee Winder Newton suggested as much as well in their questioning, which was aimed at getting Ott to tell them who gave the orders in his office — him or Dole?

"I don't understand" or "I don't know what you're getting at," he said several times, asking council members to repeat questions. Even when the questions were submitted in writing because of his hearing issue, he couldn't deal with them.

"Who is your chief deputy?" Wilson followed up.

Ott froze for a couple of seconds, then turned to Dole shaking his head with a tortured grin on his lips, unable to come up with her name. She leaned over and whispered in his ear, as she had to do on several occasions, to help him through.

Repeated scenes like that left one veteran county staffer wiping away tears at the end of 40 minutes of cut-it-with-a-knife-thick tension.

"It was very concerning," Newton said. "Our big concern is we love Gary. … But what I heard there was a series of questions posed by the council that were not answered for them."

Later in the day, Dole delivered the recorder's initial budget presentation to the council as Ott sat by silently.

The problem for county leaders is that short of criminal activity, which all acknowledge is not part of this case, neither the council nor the mayor can do anything legally to force Ott to resign — because he is independently elected.

Newton said she and Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw are considering a resolution to try to bring more public pressure on Ott to step aside in consideration of using taxpayer money wisely.

Other than that, about the best they can do is try to get the Legislature to change the law to give local governments a means of removing an elected official unable to do a job due to declining mental or physical health.

That course of action would not solve the immediate problem. And if nothing can be done, Ott is scheduled to remain in office until 2020.