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Recalling recall

We got our ballots in the mail today, again, and voted, again. No, this wasn’t “vote early and often” – these new ballots arriving in our mailbox were not the better known statewide ballots (which we submitted some days ago) but instead had one local city issue on them: The recall of our mayor, in the city of Carlton, Oregon.

We’ll not spend much space in this post about the specifics of the recall (the “grounds” make little sense) or whether the mayor should be retained (we strongly think she should). But it does seem like fair occasion, at this mid-point between two even-year elections, to revisit the whole subject of recall elections.

The primary point is that there are altogether too many of them, and they are the bane of many communities, especially small communities.

Recall was one of the direct democracy reforms Oregon helped pioneer a century ago, and we do not suggest getting rid of it: It has a useful purpose. On occasion a public office holder becomes destructive, seriously damaging the community, to the point that the community would face important loss if that person continues in place; or else, the office holder becomes corrupt, or criminal, and can’t be allowed to stay on the job. Such cases exist, but they are rare. In the last 25 or 30 years of recall cases in Northwest communities, we can think of just one where these standards generally were met, in the larger city of Spokane, where Mayor Jim West was recalled in December 2005. And even that had some gray area to it.

Small cities almost never have the kind of crisis situations that require a recall, yet that is where almost all recall elections are held, maybe in part because the threshold for forcing an election is so low. In Oregon, Ashland, Oakland, Willamina, Aurora, Sheridan, Newport, Turner, Lafayette (notoriously), Florence – and those are all recent, in the last year or two – have been torn up by recall elections. A number of Idaho communities (over the years, Homedale, Wendell, St. Anthony, Spirit Lake) are notorious for them as well. (Not so much in Washington, as we’ll explain.)

For a couple of decades, the city of Garden City, adjacent to the northwest side of Boise, was wracked by endless recall elections featuring the same revolving cast of unappealing characters. During that whole time the city stagnated, depressed and shabby-looking, while its better-run neighbor Boise advanced smartly. Then a new regime came in, led by a well-regarded local banker, and the recalls stopped. The city took off, and – clean and sober now for almost two decades – Garden City has prospered.

Too many recall cities take many years to break out of that cycle, with the result that city governments never become stable enough to do the jobs they’re supposed to do – police and fire and sewer and water and streets and so on – with the result that the city fails to grow, discourages new businesses, misses opportunities, and heads into tailspin. Garden City, Idaho, was like that for many years while a few dozen people squabbled in their endless feuds; Lafayette, Oregon, fast-growing and terribly unprepared for it, is a lot like that now.

These recalls rarely have anything to do with any crisis at city hall. Often, it starts when someone at city hall was fired, or a contract went in a different direction, or some personal slight put someone’s nose out of line. To that lit fuse is usually added a small group of people, sometimes formerly involved at city hall but no longer, but almost always a crew who have the traditional “too much time on their hands.” They can’t be bothered to affirmatively run for office; that would involve developing solutions and defending their own views. Much more fun to simply throw spears at someone else, without having to absorb any return fire.

If you’re getting the sense here that we’re usually left cold by recall advocates, you’re right. There are exceptions. The courageous lady who launched the West recall (she had no personal stake in the matter other than what she saw as good for her city) in Spokane would be one, because she very publicly put herself out as a leader of the effort. More often, the advocates stay in the shadows. (Here in Carlton, residents today received a letter from recall proponents; the letter was unsigned, the proponents – and whatever their real agenda may be – left unnamed.)

Recalls are community-rippers; almost always the main result of a recall, whether it succeeds or fails, is a damaged town. The typical result is anger that fades only slowly, because unlike in a normal election, where the idea is to choose the best person for the job, here the idea is firing a person; and, of course, a new round of recalls once the outs become the ins. Since the reasons behind the advocacy for the firing are, so often, obscure, they often are the subject of rumor and gossip around town.

Given all that, and given that elected officials are up for re-election at regular intervals, why not – barring a crisis – just wait till the next election? Almost always, that’s what should happen. (In the case of our town of Carlton, the mayor’s office will be up for election again in exactly one year.) When it doesn’t, you have to suspect that the real intent involves maneuvers that couldn’t be made to work quite so well in a regular election, especially since only one side – not both – is on the hot seat. And that ought to give any voter pause.

Let’s back up a moment, and take a look at the recall generally.

The first recall provision in the United States was passed in the city of Los Angeles in 1903, followed by two states – Oregon and Michigan – five years later. Currently, 18 states allow for recall of state officials, and somewhere between 29 and 36 (opinions differ) allow for recall of local elected officials. (Federal officials – members of Congress and presidents – cannot be recalled. No, they can’t. Period.)

State-level recalls are extremely rare. Exactly two governors, Gray Davis of California in 2003 and Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921, have been recalled, and not many more other state officials. The recall has been a local, and mostly a small-jurisdiction, phenomenon.

In Oregon proponents have 90 days to collect enough valid signatures to equal 15% of the vote cast for governor in the last election. (In Carlton, that means about 90 signatures; if a couple of large families are involved, you’re most of the way there.) Oregon has one of the lowest thresholds for forcing an election; the only one lower is Rhode Island. Idaho requires signatures from 20% of all eligible voters at time of the last election, a bar still low but a little higher. Most states are more stringent.

In Oregon and Idaho, you can launch a recall effort against a local or state official for practically any reason at all – even no meaningful reason at all. Not true in Washington state, where as a matter of practice before a recall election can be scheduled, a judge has to find reasonable cause to believe that the official has committed “some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office, or who has violat[ed] oath of office (Const. Art. I §33)”. (A judge found exactly that in the West case.) In other words, the recall advocates actually have to build and defend a rational case against the office holder, which may be one reason Washington doesn’t seem to have nearly as many recall elections as Oregon or Idaho.

The signature requirement in Washington, by the way, is 35% of the total votes for the office cast in the last election – a tougher requirement than in Oregon or Idaho.

We’d suggest the Washington approach is a better way for Oregon (and Idaho) to go. Along with this provision included in the law in Georgia: “Discretionary performance of a lawful act or a prescribed duty shall not constitute a ground for recall of an elected public official.”

Recall shouldn’t be impossible. But it should happen only when the problem is extreme, which probably means the bulk of a local community understands that it needs to happen. Which means the requirement for recall ought to be made a lot tougher than it is right now.

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