Time to fix the recall law

Time to fix the recall law

July 19th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The recall-election debacle that hinged on the city's flawed recall law - and that was futilely dragged through the courts the past two years - showed why the city must revise its recall law to accord with the controlling state recall law. The City Council's 6-3 vote Tuesday in favor of amending the city's charter to fix that problem marks the first step toward a legitimate recall process. The question now is why there's any debate among council members that the law must be changed, when the city really has no other option.

The fringe recall movement to oust Mayor Ron Littlefield and council members Jack Benson and Manny Rico failed for several good reasons: It wrongly attacked officials for adopting an overdue tax increase; it was badly managed; it failed to attract enough certifiable petitioners' signatures to meet even the city's faulty law; and it was wrongly expedited by the county Election Commission's partisan laxity.

Fortunately, it also failed to meet prevailing state due process standards. But the council has to vote again next week to put charter language to amend the city law on a ballot.

The state recall law reasonably dictates a three-step process: First, a successful petition for recall by at least 15 percent of the city's registered voters - in this case, around 15,000 voters; secondly, a subsequent ballot for voters to decide whether to recall the targeted official; and, thirdly, if needed, a subsequent election to pick a successor.

The city's faulty two-step process would have simply recalled the mayor if 50 percent of the voters in the previous mayoral race certifiably signed a conforming petition. In the recent city case, that dubious process would have let the signatures of just 9,000 certifiable voters - less than 10 percent of the city's registered voters - dictate both an ouster, and a subsequent election for a new mayor. That unfair anomaly - an ouster accomplished by a small fringe majority - would have occurred because the incredibly low voter turnout (just 18 percent in the election that gave Littlefield a second term) effectively lowered the bar for recall.

Surely the prior city officials who adopted the city's recall law in 1990 failed to envision how a low-voter-turnout could hand a tiny minority of voters the opportunity to oust a duly elected mayor with such a small number of petition signers. That unintended result simply confirms the sounder requirements of the state recall law. Under its controlling provisions, a minority faction cannot effectuate an official's ouster through a low-ball petition; it takes a subsequent popular vote to force a recall.

Councilwoman Deborah Scott's objection to adopting the state process is short-sighted and futile. The Legislature made the state law superior to non-conforming municipal recall provisions in 1997. Councilwoman Sally Robinson has a more legitimate complaint with the Tuesday vote. She believes recall elections should be allowed only for illegal conduct or moral turpitude.

The council would serve well to adopt that condition for recall. As the recall debacle here showed, there's no shortage of people who would attempt to oust elected officials simply for adopting a reasonable financial policy to meet the city's core needs. That's not sufficient grounds for a recall.