Finance

Local Government and Recall Fever

The printed agenda for meetings of the county board in Monroe County, Wisconsin, always reminds elected supervisors to wear name tags, because "it helps visitors."...
by | November 30, 2009

The printed agenda for meetings of the county board in Monroe County, Wisconsin, always reminds elected supervisors to wear name tags, because "it helps visitors." Name tags are especially helpful right now. This fall, voters recalled and replaced one-third of the board.

Recalls at the local level are a rapidly growing trend. More than 100 recall efforts were launched this year, targeting mayors and city council members and school boards, individually or en masse. That's more than four times the number in 2008. It doesn't even count at least a dozen targeted officials who announced they would resign or not stand for reelection rather than face a recall vote. And it doesn't count the numerous recall efforts that fell short on signatures or were thrown out on legal grounds.

But most local recall efforts do reach the ballot. Usually, they revolve around money. The Monroe County board had approved construction of a new jail, at a cost of $26 million. The jail in the existing county courthouse, built in 1895, has only 69 beds--not nearly enough to accommodate an average daily jail population of 118 inmates. As a result, the county has had to spend $1 million per year housing inmates in other jurisdictions.

Voters in the financially strapped county, however, were angered by the cost of the new jail and the interest payments yet to come. They recalled eight supervisors who had voted for the plan; with their ouster, the project was quickly canceled.

Most states allow recalls, and generally with good reason. Given the legal troubles of the last two governors of Illinois, it's difficult to argue with a new law in that state that allows for gubernatorial removal by the electorate. But in other cases, public officials are being attacked for offenses that can only be described as penny-ante. One mayor in Arizona is facing a recall attempt led by a citizen who is angry about a series of zoning decisions that didn't go his way. And even Dennis Clinard, who led the recall effort this year in Monroe County, concedes that the supervisors were not guilty of malfeasance or criminal intent--just a policy decision that, it turned out, the community disagreed with. One might argue that's a problem to be taken care of at election time, not a reason for tossing people out in the middle of their terms.

Al Ott, a Wisconsin state representative, thinks recall has gotten out of hand and has tried, unsuccessfully, to amend the state recall law to require some form of malfeasance prior to removal. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with letting elected officials know that the public is watching carefully. But the prospect of recall based on a public-policy decision threatens to undermine representative government. As Ott puts it, "We lose our ability to make the tough decisions we are elected to make."

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