Tom Cochran is the chief executive officer and executive director of the United States Conference of Mayors
Not that long ago, it was rare for elected officials to face recall elections. When they did, corruption or scandal drove the voters to make an early change. Not so anymore. Elected officials today at all levels of government are defending their offices for much, much less. Instead of abusing their positions, many are doing their jobs, forced to raise taxes and lay off employees. They are making tough decisions in tough economic times and facing recalls anyway.
With new social network tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, a small minority of voters can drum up enough names to petition for a recall in a short period of time and without much expense. In some instances, recalls have begun within hours after the general election.
The ease of such efforts has resulted in a more than doubling of recall elections among mayors in the past two years. In 2009, 23 mayors faced recall elections, compared to 57 in 2010, creating a new phenomenon in local politics that the U.S. Conference of Mayors described as "recall fever" in a 30-minute documentary of that name that encouraged mayors to educate themselves about their state and local laws governing recalls.
Serious recall attempts have been launched in major cities, including Kansas City, Mo.; Miami; and Portland, Ore., among others. One hour after Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle was elected, bloggers were organizing a recall. Johnstown, Colo., Mayor Mark Romanowski survived a recall election this year after residents opposed his plan to switch from diagonal to parallel parking spaces. Longtime Akron, Ohio, Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic endured a nasty attack by a political opponent and ended up with more votes in the recall count than in his actual re-election.
The nation's mayors do not oppose recall elections. Voters have a right to recall their elected officials, especially when corruption and fraud are involved. Given the dissatisfaction that voters are expressing about government in general, it's not surprising that we have seen an uptick in the recall numbers.
We do, however, believe that right is being abused by a minority of people who too often has a political ax to grind and doesn't want to accept the majority's decision on who should run their cities. They use to their advantage lax and conflicting state and local recall laws that require only a small number of names on recall petitions. Most don't require any specific reason for the recall.
Most mayors survive recall elections, but the effort drains them of time and energy better focused on problems facing their cities. They also drain the city coffers of much-needed revenue. Recall elections are costly. For example, Mission Viejo, Calif., spent $43,000 certifying the recall petition against then Mayor Lance MacLean and another $245,000 on the special election that resulted in his February 2010 defeat. It is estimated that $4 million was spent on the recall election of Mayor Carlos Alvarez in Miami-Dade County.
Not only are recalls costly, they are socially destructive as well. Listen to the Rev. Eugene Norris of Akron, Ohio, on the 2009 recall of Mayor Plusquellic in Recall Fever: A recall election "takes your focus off of what we should be focusing on, and that is collaborating as a community. We are never going to agree on everything, but let's bring our resources together. Unfortunately, this process seems to be circumventing that."
Norris is correct. More and more, recalls are about creating chaos and uncertainty and less about throwing out the bums.
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