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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Recall Mania

December 16, 2010

It’s been a seesaw year for Dave Leyton, the Genesee County prosecutor. On the upside, his rivals for the Democratic nomination for attorney general — Sen. Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing and lawyer Richard Bernstein — dropped out well before the nominating convention. That gave him time to raise money and crisscross the state while three, then two, Republican wannabes battled it out. Ultimately, former Appeals Judge Bill Schuette secured the GOP designation.

Also on the upside during the summer: national media attention, including heavy press in Michigan, for Leyton’s prosecution of accused serial killer Elias Abuelazam, who is suspected of stabbings in Michigan, Ohio and Virginia and was arrested while trying to flee the country.

The downsides? First, Schuette beat Leyton in November. And then a disgruntled relative of a crime victim launched a move to recall Leyton from the prosecutor’s job he won in 2004.

Although Genesee County officials rejected the anti-Leyton petition language in late November, the effort highlights how recalls have become the wild cards in Michigan’s political deck.

And like one-eyed jacks in a poker game, they carry the potential for major upheaval, as history shows.

Flip the calendar back to 1983 when suburban Detroit voters recalled Democratic senators Phil Mastin of Pontiac and David Serotkin of Mt. Clemens for supporting newbie-Gov. James Blanchard’s $675 million income tax hike. The ripple effects were quick — Republicans won both vacant seats, creating a GOP majority in the Senate. “It’s not democracy,” Serotkin said at the time about the resulting turnover in party control.

The ripple effects also proved long-lasting. First, Republicans kept uninterrupted control of the Senate for the next 27 years and counting. Second, the lingering fear of recall still scares away some elected officials from supporting tax increases despite the dire need of the state, local governments and school districts for more revenue to support basic services and essential programs. And third, the threat of recall encourages timidity among officeholders, deterring them from making other decisions that may rile small but organized groups of activists in their districts and communities.

Talk about dramatic changes. On November 2, Marine City voters recalled Mayor Bob Lepley and four commissioners in a controversy about the city budget, water and sewer rates and termination of the police chief. When the polls closed, only one recall target, Commissioner James Turner, remained standing, and one other commissioner wasn’t targeted. Afterwards, the city’s website dryly noted: “Due to a lack of quorum, Commission meetings for November 4th and 18th have been cancelled.” And as of December 8, the mayor’s home page tersely said, “Information coming soon.”

St. Clair County elections officials interviewed applicants and appointed two interim commissioners so there would be a quorum, and a special election is set for February 22 to pick four commissioners and a mayor. Meanwhile, Marine City clerk Diana Kade notes that business continues “as usual” and the city “is paying all the bills that need to be paid,” adding, “There’s no disruption of services.”

The Michigan Constitution doesn’t specify — or even explain — valid or invalid rationales for a recall. Article 8 simply provides: “Laws shall be enacted to provide for the recall of all elective officers except judges of courts of record upon petition of electors equal in number to 25 percent of the number of persons voting in the last preceding election for the office of governor in the electoral district of the officer sought to be recalled. The sufficiency of any statement of reasons or grounds procedurally required shall be a political rather than a judicial question.”

The reasons that anti-incumbents offer to justify a recall can range from the trivial to the severe. On one end of this year’s spectrum was a move to recall three Salem Township, Washtenaw County, officials for voting to require a privately run post office to move from township property and for voting to dissolve the township’s Fire Administration Board. All survived the recall election.

At the other end of the severity spectrum were drives against a Grand Haven school board member convicted of stealing money from a school fundraiser and the Republic Township clerk in Marquette County, whom the township board had censured for “gross negligence and her inability to carry out her duties and her failure to complete her legal statutory and non-statutory duties.” Both resigned before the recall process had played its course.

Critics of the process argue that it’s a disruptive backdoor mechanism to overturn election results. Sometimes that’s true, especially when leaders of the anti-officeholder drive are allied with losers of previous elections or are long-time critics of the targets’ policy stands.

“These recalls are frequently a personal vendetta at public expense,” says Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs Association.

The only recalled sheriff was Kalamazoo County’s Ronald Keim, who lost his job in 1977 after refusing to reappoint 11 deputies. But this year, Saginaw County Sheriff William Federspiel faced a recall campaign over his driving a Ford Mustang GT seized in a drug case. A sign on the car reads “Taken From A Local Drug Dealer.” Federspeil said the latest organizer of the drive, who’d been arrested in a marijuana case, didn’t file petition signatures by the deadline.

Not surprisingly, things can get nasty. In Kent County, three Plainfield Township officials facing recall hired a retired FBI supervisor to investigate allegations of intimidation and threats. And this month, the ousted Hamburg Township clerk in Livingston County sued the organizer of the recall campaign against him for defamation and emotional distress.

Conflicts need not be partisan to be political — thus, talk this year by some AFSCME leaders of recalling Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano for furloughing county workers represented by the union.

Although municipal and school board members are most likely to find themselves in the crossfire, outgoing House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township) understands the heat as well.

In the November 2008 election, he simultaneously won a third term and beat back a recall vote — the first such assault on a legislator to make it to the polls since the Serotkin-Mastin rout of 1983. The Michigan Taxpayers Alliance led by former Rep. Leon Drolet of Macomb Township launched the recall drive in retaliation for Dillon’s support of a 2007 tax hike.

This year’s flood of recall petition drives — some of which won’t be resolved until elections in 2011 — are spread across the state.

Voters dumped three Standish-Sterling Community Schools Board members but rejected recall demands in the village of Bloomingdale (Van Buren County), Seneca Township (Lenawee County) and Grosse Pointe Shores. In Allegan County, Dorr Township voters retained all seven board members amid accusations of Open Meetings Act violations from a group calling itself Restoring Ethics and Democracy.

Voters in Calhoun County’s Emmett Township go to the polls February 22 to decide whether to recall their supervisor, treasurer and a trustee. What was the officeholders’ alleged sin, one that pro-recallers deem too serious to wait for the next regular election? Backing a special assessment millage to avert the layoff of seven public safety officers. The Augusta Township clerk in Washtenaw County faces a recall election the same day because she “refuses to honor verbal requests” to inspect board minutes.

Some recent recall drives fell short. In Ottawa County, petitioners unhappy about the handling of a drain project didn’t get enough signatures to force a vote on the fate of five Park Township officials. The same was true in Ogemaw County, where the clerk and a commissioner were targeted, and in Berrien County, where the drain commissioner was in the cross-hairs.

In Genesee County, Leyton’s foe was Robert Johnson, who sought to oust the prosecutor for the way his office handled the murder of Johnson’s brother. Leyton concluded that the case was a matter of self-defense, but the recall documents asserted that he violated his oath of office for failing to charge the alleged murderer. Incidentally, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan notes there have been no recall elections against county prosecutors, at least not in the past 30 years.

Genesee County is particularly ripe territory for recall mania. In 2009 the Westwood Heights School Board lost three members that way. This year’s activity includes petitions filed by Flint Board of Education member David Davenport — who’s been twice censured by his school board colleagues — against a fellow board member, the Flint City Council president and the county clerk, among others. Is it any surprise that Davenport himself became the target of a recall effort? And an unsuccessful Goodrich Village Council candidate wants to can the council president.

When the effort began to recall Federspiel, the Saginaw County sheriff, a Saginaw News editorial criticizing the movement noted that 141 recall petitions were filed in the county from 1990 through 2009 — 29 of them made it onto the ballot. “Recall filers don’t need truth on their side,” the newspaper accurately opined. “Truth and triviality don’t matter.”

True, a recall can be a badge of honor that reflects an officeholder’s adherence to principle in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous political fortune. When Hortense Canady, the first African American on the Lansing Board of Education, died this fall, she was lauded for her commitment to school desegregation. That commitment cost her and four other board members their seats when city voters recalled them in 1972.

But Canady’s was a rare occasion, and was considered insufficient justification for the state’s virtually open-ended recall process to remain unchanged.

When Michigan debated term limits on state officials, Attorney General Frank Kelley heatedly challenged the need for such a constitutional amendment. “We already have term limits,” Kelley declaimed. “They’re called elections.”

Based on the number of legislative incumbents who lost their seats or failed to win new positions this year, I’d argue that Michigan already has a system that works without the rubric of “recall.” To paraphrase Kelley, it’s called elections.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Freedman is associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University and director of Capital News Service. He and Dome columnist Stephen A. Jones are editors of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).

December 17, 2010 · Filed under Freedman Tags: , , , , ,

27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 PAUL ROZYCKI // Jan 1, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I agree entirely. Here’s an article on recalls that I did for a local magazine here in the Flint area.

    Paul Rozycki

    To Recall or Not to Recall? That is the Question

    In the past I made bet with my students that they couldn’t go through two weeks of the newspaper without finding at least one story on a recall in the Genesee County area.

    Today, I’d still make that same bet, but I’d have to shorten the timeframe. I doubt that one could go through a week of local media without a discussion of some recall attempt. In the last few months a member of the Flint School Board has tried to recall most of the other members of the board. Then he tried to recall the mayor and had it petition turned down. Then he tried to recall the Genesee County Prosecutor, who voted against the petition. Then he redid his petition to recall the mayor, which was finally accepted. At which point, he dropped the recall against the prosecutor.

    Then (are you still following this?) another group tried to recall the school board member.

    On top of that, we have seen additional recall attempts for township board members, city council members and other local officials in Genesee County. Some have tried to recall Governor Granholm in her last year in office and several state legislators have faced recall attempts. Recalls seem to have become a local sporting event.

    Recalls were created in the early 20th Century as part of the Progressive movement of the time. The idea was to give the average voter a greater voice in how their own governments were run. Right now about 18 states have some provisions for recall, though the details vary. In Michigan, any state or local official can be recalled, except for judges. There is no recall provision for elected federal officials.

    The initial idea behind the recall was probably a good one. Voters should have the option of removing officials who are clearly incompetent, corrupt, unable or unwilling to perform their duties. However, like many decent ideas, it can be carried to foolish extremes. That is almost certainly the case in Michigan (and Genesee County) today.

    At the very least, recalls are an expensive and time consuming distraction for both elected officials and voters. Though many recalls are unsuccessful, elected officials are forced to run endless campaigns to retain their office, as one angry group after another files recall petitions. Some defeated candidates see the recall as a second shot at winning. Right now we probably spend too much time campaigning and too little time governing and the recalls simply make the problem worse.

    In addition, the threat of recalls makes elected officials hesitant to make any decision of consequence. To govern is to decide, and any important decision will make someone unhappy. If any disgruntled voter can start a recall campaign, elected officials will avoid making any decisions. It may keep someone in office but it does not serve the public well.

    So what is the solution?

    The easiest one it to simply change our attitude towards recalls. Many states with recall provisions don’t have the endless string of recalls that we see in Michigan. They use them selectively for those cases where officials are clearly incompetent, not for every disagreement about public policy.

    The second solution is to make our recall process tougher to use. Maybe we should limit the reasons for a recall to those involving incompetence or corruption. Right now almost any reason can be the basis for a recall as long as it is clearly stated. We could require more signatures for a recall to go ahead. A recall petition requires signatures of 25% of all those who voted for governor in that particular district.

    Or we could drop the idea altogether. It has been in the Michigan Constitution since 1908, but we survived in the years before 1908 without it, and even today about 32 states don’t have similar recall provisions. If we end up with a new State Constitutional Convention after this year’s election, that may be one of the issues on the agenda.

    All in all, I like the first or second idea. We are probably better off with some recall provisions, but either common sense or tighter laws can make the recall a support for democratic government and not an obstacle.

    Paul Rozycki (4/25/10)

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