‘This is a disgrace’: Bitter fight over district attorney’s job performance marks end of Utah legislative session

Mar 4, 2024, 10:21 PM | Updated: 10:32 pm

SALT LAKE CITY –– The Utah legislative session ended on a fiery note as lawmakers approved a bill that critics say unfairly targets an elected official.

The passage of SB273 late Friday night came after passionate and emotional debate with raised voices and sharp accusations of playing politics.

But supporters of the bill say it’s about dealing with crime in Salt Lake City – and protecting taxpayer investments in the downtown area – as the state tries to lure a professional hockey team.

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Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, told her colleagues late Friday that the state has invested “billions of dollars this session” in downtown Salt Lake, and she wants to make sure “we’re protecting that investment.”

“One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from business owners and citizens in this area is that there are many people walking around Salt Lake City who are criminals,” Birkeland said, “and they’re not being prosecuted.”

Republican legislators blame Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill at a press conference in Salt Lake City. (Photo: KSL TV)

“There needs to be some level of accountability in our capital city for the prosecution of crime when it is not appropriately prosecuted,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland.

SB273 requires Gill’s office to report how his prosecutors spend their time in 15-minute increments, along with many other data points. The bill also allows the governor or the new committee overseeing the revitalization of downtown to recommend that the Utah Supreme Court remove Gill and replace him.

The reaction of Democrats

Democrats were furious.

“This is a vindictive bill,” said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, before trying unsuccessfully to amend it to include all county attorneys in the state. The bill only applies to Salt Lake County.

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, told her colleagues she was “offended” by the bill and considered it an attack on the capital city’s representatives.

“You talk about not playing politics. We’re playing politics right now,” Romero said. “I’m very disappointed in where this is going.”

The reporting requirements will burden Gill’s office, Democrats argued. Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Midvale, said he has friends in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office who indicated they would quit if the bill passed.

“Whether that is hyperbole or not, they’re already asked to do a lot,” Stoddard said, adding that he worked as a prosecutor in the county for a decade. “It’s not as derelict as everyone thinks.”

Democrats also blasted Republicans – who hold a supermajority in the Legislature – for targeting Gill while only censuring embattled state school board member Natalie Cline over her social media post about a high school athlete.

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“I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, trying to go after an elected official, but yet we stood on this body floor and let another elected official get away with going after a child,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City. “This is a disgrace.”

The effects of the bill

Gill declined an interview request Monday but told KSL, “We are looking into the effects of the bill. It is not law until the governor signs it.”

Earlier last week, during a Senate committee hearing, Gill told legislators his office is, in fact, short-staffed.

“We don’t have those sufficient resources. So, we don’t need to go through a study. I can confirm that,” said Gill. “My question is, what is the value of that information once we have it? Is this body then going to act upon it and fill that deficit? Is this body going to direct the counties to fill that deficit appropriately? Because I would support that effort from this body.”

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, responded to that during the hearing.

“The lack of resources in any area could be covered by maybe a little more efficiency,” Stevenson said, “and I think that’s what I’m asking for here.”

Prior to the House vote Friday night, Republicans insisted the bill will yield important information.

“It gives us data so that we can figure out what is going on and why crime is rising,” said Rep. Nelson Abbott, R-Orem, “and why we receive reports that people are not being prosecuted for crimes.”

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, added, “We should not be afraid of data or sunlight or transparency, and those who view this bill as an attack are showing that they are afraid of transparency.”

Ultimately, SB273 passed the House in a 46-24 vote and received final approval from the Senate just an hour before the Legislature adjourned at the end of the 2024 general session. The bill now sits with Gov. Spencer Cox.

Asked if the governor plans to sign the bill, Cox’s office told KSL he hasn’t reviewed it yet and has no comment.

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‘This is a disgrace’: Bitter fight over district attorney’s job performance marks end of Utah legislative session