A correct ruling on recall

A correct ruling on recall

February 11th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Judge Jeff Hollingsworth's welcome decision Friday to cancel the pending August recall election for a successor to Mayor Ron Littlefield was expected, and correct. Hopefully it will end the cantankerous and misguided mission of a small minority of voters who would have wrongly ejected the mayor for reasons of fiscal and administrative policies -- annexation, a modest and long-needed property tax increase, and an unavoidable fee to meet state and federal mandates for control of storm-water run-off.

Such issues as those should have never have been allowed as reasons for a recall in the first place. With the recall properly canceled, it's now incumbent on the City Council -- if it still wants to have a unique recall statute -- to propose a common-sense recall process that comports with the more stringent state recall law, and that limits recalls to acts of moral turpitude or criminal offenses.

Policy issues typically involve difficult but necessary decisions on fiscal and administrative issues: They should not qualify as reasons for recall. That sort of recall is best left, as it traditionally has been, to the next general election, where political leaders are properly judged on their overall performance in office by a majority of voters.

The recall canceled by Judge Hollingsworth met none of those traditional standards. It was wrongly abetted, moreover, by key deficiencies in the city's recall statute and by key failures by the petitioners and by the Election Commission.

The city's statute allowed a misbegotten two-step recall. The first step allowed a small minority of registered voters to demand a recall under properly filed petitions. And if those petitions were certified, the mayor was automatically ejected from office, and a so-called "recall election" would be held at the next general municipal or county election to pick a successor from any number of candidates.

In this case, the city's faulty recall process allowed a new mayoral election upon certification of petitions signed by a number of registered voters in the city equal to 50 percent of voters in the last city election.

Talk about the tail that wags the dog. Since Mayor Littlefield was elected to his second term by an exceedingly low turnout of just 18 percent (roughly 18,000 voters) of the city's roughly 100,000 voters, it would have taken just 9,386 signatures of registered city voters on properly certified petitions -- a minority of less than 10 percent of the city's eligible voters -- to oust the mayor and elect another.

City government can't be allowed to operate on such a thin edge of vulnerability. Ousting a mayor on such thin fraction of the electorate would amount to rule by a small and fractious minority.

As Judge Hollingsworth's rulings have shown, however, the city's recall statute was never properly incorporated into the charter, as required by state law, to override the state's more stringent recall provisions. The latter require a more practical three-step recall process: 1) certified petitions signed by 15 percent of the city's registered voters; 2) a referendum to ask the general electorate -- the majority of voters -- whether there should be a recall election for specified reasons; and, 3) if needed then, a recall election.

The current petitions for a recall were marred for other reasons, as well. Of the 14,854 signatures acquired, just 9,718 were found to be registered city voters. But more than half those eligible signatures lacked a signing date, which disqualified them. Signing dates are required under state law to confirm a signee's right to rescind his or her signature within 10 days.

The Election Commission's Republic majority, moreover, wrongly allowed improper petitions and signatures to be accepted before they voted -- on a partisan 3-2 vote -- to certify the recall election. Judge Hollingsworth had laid out all these reasons to reject the recall in the mayor's initial lawsuit for an injunction to stop the recall, but appellate Judge John McClarty ruled that decision was premature because the Election Commission had not actually certified the recall. Once it did -- ignoring the court's ruling -- the commission's errant decision was fair game for another court ruling.

Judge Hollingsworth's repeat ruling Friday should now be respected by the both Election Commission and the City Council. The latter needs to write a new recall statute, if it still wishes to have one, that meets the state's more sensible and stringent standards. And the Election Commission needs to learn to follow state law and quit making up its own partisan rules to advantage a discordant minority of voters. Its misdeeds already have been too onerous and too expensive to justify another needless court filing.