Daggett County attorney fired

Daggett commission fires county attorney

By Les Bowen for Vernal Express   |   July 5, 2008   |   Original source not available

The Daggett County Commission chose to terminate the county’s contract with County Attorney Bryan Sidwell last week in a 2-1 decision.

Media reports about Sidwell’s termination have largely revolved around the ongoing investigation and prosecution of voter fraud cases related to the 2006 election. But Commissioner Henry Gutz told the Vernal Express Monday that the decision to terminate the attorney’s contract was not based on a single case or isolated incident.

“The purpose in termination of Mr. Sidwell has nothing directly to do with the voter registration problem,”said Gutz.

However, he said actions by the county attorney in the voter fraud cases and throughout his term of service in Daggett County prompted the decision.

Sidwell has been employed as the county attorney since the start of 2007, when he was selected as counsel for the county. The four-year contract has a termination clause, allowing either party to end the agreement with six months notice with or without reason.

“It has been our position to not give a reason,”explained Gutz. Sidwell did not respond to attempts by the Vernal Express to reach him for comment this week. When contacted last week by the Uintah Basin Standard, he declined to comment on the county commissioners’ decision or his future plans.

Sidwell will continue his contract through the end of the calendar year.

“He has made a commitment to perform the duty that is required of his office,” said Gutz, adding that prosecution of some 51 cases of voter registration fraud will continue both under the county and the Utah Attorney General’s Office, where the cases originated.

Gutz added that names investigated and prosecuted in the voter fraud cases came from several groups and the issue is not as one-sided as has been portrayed.

The lone vote to retain Sidwell came from Daggett County Commissioner Stewart Leith. He told the newspaper Monday that he had no comments on the commission’s decision and directed questions to the other two commissioners, who voted to end the contract.

Floyd Briggs was unavailable for an interview, and while Gutz declined to comment on the particulars, the commissioner provided an overview into the commission’s decision.

“People feel we’re trying to withhold information,” said Gutz. He explained that the county has followed Sidwell’s advice to be tight-lipped on issues from the voter fraud case, to the jail escapes last year, to an inquiry into the county’s affordable housing program.

“The county’s policy toward the media has been to willingly assist anyone wanting access to public records including the media and with regard to other information to remain silent,” wrote Sidwell in a letter in response to a records inquiry by KSL News Service related to affordable housing.

The letter, dated Jan. 11, 2007 — less than two weeks into Sidwell’s contract — was posted on KSL’s website and lists several reasons for the county’s policy. Sidwell charged the media with being a “private business motivated by profits and not by the truth.” He explained that time and space constraints often limit the media’s ability to tell the entire story, and added that media tend to reflect a single viewpoint instead of telling all sides of a story.

“The media tends to make the news, not report the news,” wrote Sidwell. He said reporters often take an “abrasive, aggressive approach, believing they have some higher authority above the law and believing they are entitled to something because they are the media.”

The letter also charges the media with not policing itself and taking quotes out of context. The full letter and the accompanying story by KSL are available at http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=309&sid=2685763.

Daggett County has no local newspaper and is reliant on outside media to report what’s happening there. Gutz said the lack of open channels of information is taking its toll.

“The attitude that has developed of ‘Don’t talk to the media,’ has killed us,” continued the commissioner. He explained that the negative or even non-image of the county has led to a position where it is losing opportunities for grant and loan funds.

One decision by the Utah Permanent Community Impact Board has meant the delay and potentially the denial of a request for more than $500,000 to revitalize the county jail, the county’s top employer. To keep the jail running, the county is drawing on the Dutch John Enterprise Fund and passing it through the county budget.

But the process of passing funds from one source to the other is bankrupting the county, according to Gutz. He said if the county continues in its current fiscal direction, he’s looking at a possibility of not making payroll in approximately two years.

Gutz explained that the commission has decided to take the county in a new direction. He pointed to the lack of information released as one cause for the county’s officials, employees and residents at large being disjointed and separated into factions. He said he’d rather have the public informed to help bring people together to find solutions to problems within the county.