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Herald editorial: When it comes to County Commission statement gaffe, the buck stops where?

By Daily Herald Editorial Board - | May 30, 2020

Monday will mark four weeks since the Utah County Commission released a strongly-worded statement — signed by all three commissioners and the mayors of every city in the county — claiming that a pair of area businesses purposely flaunted COVID-19 guidelines, resulting in 68 new coronavirus cases.

That statement, detailing practices deemed “completely unacceptable,” criticized the businesses for disregarding safety guidelines generally, requiring employees to work even after testing positive for COVID-19 and “putting employees, their families and ultimately the health of the community at risk.” Released at what seemed to be the height of the pandemic locally, these assertions were no small thing.

However, after several weeks of investigation, and turning down GRAMA requests from multiple Utah media outlets asking for the names of the two businesses, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt held a press conference Tuesday where he essentially called the initial Utah County Commission statement, which was based off information received from the Utah County Health Department, fake news.

“What we learned from that (investigation) was that the original communication from the Health Department wasn’t accurate,” said Leavitt, who in his position of Utah County Attorney represents the Utah County Commission. “In fact, there were not two businesses who were forcing employees to work (while sick). That was information that was not right. … And as we’ve gotten deeper into the issue, we’ve learned that the assertions weren’t true.”

The fact that this apparent error occurred is one thing, but things have reached a new level of absurdity as it relates to transparency when trying to understand the origins of how or why it happened in the first place.

To wit:

Leavitt laid the original misinformation squarely on the Utah County Health Department but claimed that he didn’t have a clue how or why that happened. He referred further direct questions on that subject to the Health Department.

Utah County Commission Chair Tanner Ainge had plenty to say when the statement was originally released but was strangely mum after Leavitt’s press conference, and did not respond to a request for comment in light of the new information. Commissioner Bill Lee did step up, offering a general statement on the inaccuracy of the information the commission had acted upon. However, he referred all further questions on the subject to Leavitt and the Health Department.

Following Tuesday’s press conference, the Utah County Health Department said it would release a statement later that day. At the end of the day, however, the department said it would instead release a statement Wednesday. Finally, on Thursday, the department said it would have no statement after all and, completing the roulette wheel of shifting accountability, referred all further questions to Leavitt.

Which begs the question, does anyone at any of these three local government agencies have a desk nameplate saying, “The buck stops here”? Can we start a GoFundMe to get one? At this point, there’s been so much buck passing that if someone could figure out a way to tax the exchanges and donate the proceedings to local businesses hurting during the pandemic, it would be an effort we could champion.

Leavitt made a point in his press conference to say the Health Department should not be vilified — and we strongly agree. The department and its employees have been under intense pressure during these unprecedented times, and have done important work in contact tracing and disseminating key health information to the residents of Utah County.

Still, the department’s refusal to comment, even as Leavitt and the county commission imply that’s where the mistake originated, is troubling.

Mistakes happen. No one is immune. But when those errors happen in such a public forum — in this case, starting with a statement signed by county commissioners and all local mayors — we believe it calls for an abundance of transparency, and not in the denial of further information, whether by straightforward answers to seemingly simple questions or shutting down GRAMA requests due to generous interpretation of state code. This process and information sharing is the first step to prevent it from happening again.

Leavitt said he was completely unaware of this entire situation until members of the media started reaching out to him for comment. In one telling moment of his press conference, he said he knew how circumstances developed from Point B to Point C, but had no clue how they got from Point A to Point B to begin with.

Taking him at his word that he does not know how or why the initial inaccuracies made their way to Utah County Commissioners, we can’t help but ask, “Why not?” Of the three local entities, he seems to be in the unique position to ask for and share those findings.

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