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.