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The Rise of the Recall Election

Angry voters are increasingly using recall elections to remove local leaders.

As mayor of Mission Viejo -- a wealthy city of 100,000 people in California’s Orange County -- Lance MacLean was an active patron of community businesses, and he regularly encouraged his residents to shop locally. Nowadays, he says, “I’m doing the exact opposite.” When he goes out to eat, he drives to a neighboring city. He goes out of town when he wants to catch a movie. He avoids his own community market. MacLean was ousted when he lost a February 2010 recall election by just one-tenth of a percentage point. More than a year later, MacLean says he still feels like a pariah in his own town. “The wounds are open,” he says, “and they hurt still.”

MacLean has joined a small but rapidly growing club of mayors who have faced recall elections from angry voters. In cities across the country, citizens are increasingly using recall elections to boot local leaders from office -- or at least force them to spend time and money fighting to keep their jobs.

In most cases, recalls aren’t based on any allegations of criminal wrongdoing. Although recall attempts have been launched in some cities for this reason -- like Bell, Calif., where officials paid themselves exorbitant salaries on the taxpayer dime, and in Detroit, where former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick faced a slew of felony charges -- those types of cases don’t constitute the majority of recent recall efforts. Instead, mayors are being targeted over issues that in most places would hardly generate headlines. Johnstown, Colo., Mayor Mark Romanowski survived a recall election earlier this year that was prompted, in part, by residents’ opposition to a plan to switch from diagonal to parallel parking spaces. Ogden, Kan., Mayor Jimmy Bonds lost a recall election last year after firing two lifeguards. Opponents said he overstepped his bounds.

In Mission Viejo, one of the criticisms lobbied against MacLean was his alleged support for a ballot measure to increase hotel taxes by 2 percent (an initiative that had failed five years earlier). What makes the situation even more peculiar is the fact that mayors in Mission Viejo aren’t particularly powerful; they’re simply council members who have been named to the post by their colleagues. MacLean -- like most of his fellow recalled mayors around the country -- believes his political opponents seized on the same anti-incumbent fervor fueling movements like the Tea Party, and voters failed to distinguish between a local politician and their federal lawmakers. “There’s nothing you can do,” MacLean says. “I’m a discredited scapegoat for their dissatisfaction with government.”

There’s no hub for definitive statistics on mayoral recalls. But Ballotpedia, a nonprofit that tracks recall elections, has identified 57 mayors who faced recall attempts last year, up from 23 in 2009. This year, 15 mayors have already faced recall attempts, which means the 2011 figure could eclipse last year’s total. Since 2009, serious recall attempts have been launched in major cities including Akron, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Omaha, Neb.; and Portland, Ore., among others. In Florida last month, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez overwhelmingly lost what may be the largest-ever recall of a local official.

Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, calls it “recall fever.” Indeed, recalls are now so prevalent that Cochran’s organization is making a film about the subject. It also plans to hold sessions about the recall process at its upcoming conference. “All we’re doing,” Cochran says, “is telling the mayors they’d better watch their backs.”

Recalls haven’t always been a part of American politics. In 1904, Los Angeles City Councilman James Davenport became the country’s first municipal official to be recalled, when voters removed him partly because of his supposed support for bringing an unpopular slaughterhouse into his district. Recall elections started becoming more prevalent after World War I as a backlash to the era of boss politics and electoral abuses. But today, the dynamics of the recall have changed. “People are a lot angrier at politicians than they were even five or six years ago,” says Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, who studies recalls. These days, he says, “you don’t have to do anything wrong” to get the boot.

Thirty-eight states have provisions that allow citizens to recall local elected officials. Recalls seem to fall into a few distinct categories: anti-corruption campaigns; citizen grass-roots movements fighting a particular issue; and old political battles that are being rehashed, often with the help of wealthy, politically involved backers. Regardless of the type, recalls are expensive for local governments. In the midst of a recession, Mission Viejo spent $43,000 certifying the recall petition against MacLean and another $245,000 on the special election that resulted in his ouster.

For mayors, recall battles take a political and emotional toll, and some say it affects their ability to govern by keeping them in constant campaign mode. Meanwhile, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive for citizens to pursue a recall election, since the threshold of signatures they need is often pegged to voter turnout, which is notoriously low in municipal elections. At a time when mayors are increasingly making unpopular decisions, such as tax hikes and layoffs to combat budget deficits, voters have reason to be frustrated with their local government. Since no mechanism exists for recalling members of Congress, and gubernatorial recalls are exceptionally rare, mayors are the logical choice for those seeking to remove an incumbent politician. In other words, says Cochran, “the mayors are easy picking. They’re low-hanging fruit.”

In Flint, Mich., Mayor Dayne Walling was targeted with a recall last year after he laid off dozens of cops and firefighters to help combat the city’s growing financial gap. Flint actually has an established tradition of recalling its leaders -- Walling’s predecessor resigned shortly before he would have faced a recall election, and another Flint mayor was recalled in 2002. For that reason, and with Flint confronting a 16.3 percent unemployment rate, Walling says he wasn’t surprised to find himself facing a recall effort. “I was making some very difficult decisions about our city’s personnel and had to do what no elected official ever wants to do -- lay off police and firefighters,” Walling says. But, he adds, “A recall doesn’t change the resources that we have to work with.”

As opponents gathered signatures last spring, Walling readied for an election. After working all day at City Hall, he spent evenings working on his campaign, which he says was difficult for his family. Eventually, Walling’s opposition submitted more than 14,000 signatures in support of a recall -- only about 8,000 were needed -- but so many were deemed invalid that the opposition couldn’t force an election. Despite the recall campaign, Walling hasn’t stopped taking steps that he believes will right the city’s finances, even though they’re not always popular. Since the failed attempt to remove Walling, his administration has increased water and sewer rates, proposed income and property tax hikes, and laid off more police officers. “I commit a recallable offense on a regular basis,” Walling says.

Mayors say recalls are often used by groups who saw their preferred candidate lose in a general election and hope that a do-over will have a different result. In April 2009, for instance, Stillwater, Okla., Mayor Nathan Bates defeated the incumbent mayor by only 27 votes. Less than a year later, he survived a recall election -- organized just months after he was sworn in -- by an even narrower margin: four votes.

“[Regular] elections ought to matter,” says Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who narrowly avoided a recall in 2009 when organizers fell just short of the necessary number of signatures. (Funkhouser actually was voted out of office last month in a regularly scheduled election and will leave office in May.) During the 2009 recall, opponents had accused Funkhouser of nepotism because he employed his wife -- a volunteer who wasn’t paid -- to work in his office. In 2008, Funkhouser was also targeted in another failed recall attempt.

Recall organizers may not even really care whether their efforts are successful. Only 15 of 57 recall attempts in 2010 resulted in a mayor resigning or losing office in a special election, according to Ballotpedia. In 2009, there was a similar success rate, with five mayors being ousted in 23 attempts. Instead, Funkhouser says, many recalls are intended to function as ongoing campaigns, to create an air of negativity around an incumbent when he runs for a regularly scheduled re-election. “If you do this over and over,” says Funkhouser, “people say, ‘If there’s that much smoke, there must be fire.’”

That air of negativity is familiar to Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Ron Littlefield, who also has faced multiple recall attempts. Last year, he prevented a recall election by filing a lawsuit that successfully argued that state recall law, which requires a greater number of signatures, trumps local law. As a result, his opponents fell short. “The thing I have to say about this -- and I don’t expect anyone except other mayors who’ve gone through recalls to understand this -- is it casts a pall over the day-to-day operations of the city,” Littlefield says. “It was a dark cloud that would never go away.”

But recall advocates see these special elections as an effective way to keep mayoral powers in check. And despite the cost to government, citizens see them as very inexpensive. Jim Folkner, a Chattanooga businessman and an organizer of the Littlefield recall, estimates that groups supporting the mayor’s removal collectively spent less than $10,000 on their efforts. (They weren’t required to report their expenditures, another criticism of the recall process in some places.) Folkner says recalls are a valuable tool for citizens to ensure their government is acting responsibly. He had criticized Littlefield for a host of offenses, including property tax increases and other fee hikes. “I don’t know how anybody who’s responsible wouldn’t want a recall [available] to keep everyone else accountable,” Folkner says. “If you don’t want to be accountable, you shouldn’t be elected.”

For that reason, recalls can actually play an important role in the political process, says UC Riverside’s Bowler. “Politicians behave differently when the people are watching.”

Part of the controversy over recalls stems from the hodgepodge of laws that govern them. Some states permit recalls of both state and local officials, but others don’t. Some statutes require that citizens have specific reasons for recalls -- such as malfeasance or incompetence -- but others give more leeway. Meanwhile, localities may have their own recall rules that differ from those prescribed by the state, and sometimes those laws conflict with one another, as they did in Chattanooga. Nationwide, the statutes are so convoluted that many recalls end up in court, including at least six attempted recalls of New Jersey mayors since 2009. Once in court, the debate quickly turns to arcane regulations, petition language and signature verification as opposed to the actual issues citizens sought to redress. That can pose a barrier to grassroots groups that may lack the funding or political acumen to endure a lengthy legal process. “An ideal situation would be to have a stable set of simple, understandable laws,” says Ballotpedia Executive Editor Leslie Graves. “I don’t think that’s the case in any state.”

Reforming the system would require lawmakers to tread delicately. Make the laws too restrictive, and corrupt politicians would have an easier time staying in office. But if they aren’t restrictive enough, mayors could get bogged down with a constant barrage of frivolous recall attempts. It’s a difficult balancing act, says Graves. “I don’t know how to write the laws so you only get rid of the bad apples and keep the good ones.”

Former Mission Viejo Mayor MacLean says the irony of the recall in his city was that for all the time, money and effort expended, little was actually accomplished. Though he was removed from his office, the candidate he supported won his seat, and the five-person Council remains divided along the same lines. “All this money, all this angst, and nothing has changed,” MacLean says. “They just got rid of someone they didn’t like. I think the community got duped.”

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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