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Stapilus: Oregon helped pioneer the recall

Guest writer Randy Stapilus is a former reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering politics and government in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In addition to publishing books for himself and others through the Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com featuring Northwest commentary and continues to write for print and online news publications. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

The months-long campaign to recall Yamhill County Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer, accompanied by a pair of school board recall efforts in Newberg, may suggest to some residents of our county that recalls are a commonplace part of the political scenery.

They’re not. In the bigger picture, they’re an unusual feature of democracy. In most times in most places, they aren’t used often, if at all.

But they do tend to pop up more frequently in some places, and Oregon is one of them. When and where they are used, of course, they tend to draw a lot of attention.

You probably don’t know much about the municipal politics of North Pole, Alaska. But in 1998, it came to the whole world’s attention when its mayor was recalled.

Just last month, you might have heard about one aspect of Seattle city politics.

A councilor there, Kshama Sawant, was nearly recalled in Dec. 7 balloting. She survived by 310 votes — razor-edge close in a city the size of Seattle.

One of the charges against her, Yamhill County residents may be interested to know, echoes a recent incident in local politics. It involved Swant opening locked city hall doors to a crowd of protesters — in her case, Black Lives Matter adherents.

In the Northwest, the highest-profile successful recall of recent years came in 2005, when Spokane Mayor James West was ousted.

Around the world, most democracies allow only for replacing elected officials at the next election.

Apart from the United States — and not even in all of its member states — recall provisions are featured in just a few countries. The roster includes Japan, Peru and Ecuador, portions of Germany and Canada, and some other scattered places. Worldwide, it’s the exception rather than the rule.

It wasn’t an original feature of American government, though it was used in some places in colonial and revolutionary America.

It was unheard of in America through most of the 19th century. Only as the 20th arrived did progressives begin to advocate for its adoption.

This is strictly a state and local government feature, by the way. There is no way to recall a member of Congress. People have tried to take up the effort at times over the years, only to learn it isn’t legally possible.

Ten states make no provision at all for recalling elected officeholders. Recall is, however, a fixture in all western states except Utah.

Oregon, famously, was a national leader in this and other measures of direct citizen democracy. Voters here added a recall amendment to the state constitution in 1908, following earlier moves establishing an initiative and referendum petition process and authorizing direct primaries.

The rules surrounding recall vary in detail and overall reach.

In neighboring Washington, recall proponents have to establish official grounds, and not just any grounds will do. State law says they have to demonstrate violation of the oath of office or “commission of some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance.”

Hard facts are needed to support all that, because a court will review the grounds and reject any not deemed to meet minimum legal requirements.

Washington isn’t alone in setting a moderate-to-high bar for recalls,either. Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Virginia have also established specific requirements that must be met.

Oregon is looser in that regard. No grounds are required.

Many states limit recall to certain officials or categories of officials. But Oregon is also more liberal there, allowing for recall of every public officer in the state.

You do have to wait at least six months after the official is sworn in to mount a recall effort. The aim is to give the official enough time to establish a track record.

Oregon also has, as recall backers in the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners have learned, highly specific requirements for petition signature numbers, procedures and timelines.

Perhaps because the recall option extends so far back in the state’s history, it has become a relatively often-used device here. In the last five years, at least 37 have been attempted, mostly at the city and county levels.

In the last couple of decades, many Yamhill County cities have experienced recall attempts, most of them proving unsuccessful.

The majority don’t get even as far as actual election. One good example — or several, depending on how you count — would be the recurring effort in recent years to recall Gov. Kate Brown.

But some Oregon recalls do succeed, of course.

In 2011, Cornelius Mayor Neal Knight and two council members were recalled after a squabble related to the city manager. In 2018, Toledo Mayor Billy Jo Smith and a couple of council members were ousted over complaints about how city business was being managed.

Recalling an elected official isn’t easy, nor should it be. Set the bar too low and any official with a critic will face endless attempts at a recall, and government functions may grind to a halt as a result.

The legal requirements generally are intended to ensure a large portion of the electorate really wants to undo what the voters not so long ago did. That’s also the reason for the “grounds” in states like Washington — to ensure the issues generating the recall are actually serious enough that the city, county or state really can’t wait until next time around.

The recall provision is there for a reason. Sometimes mistakes are made in elections, here as they are everywhere else. It’s there as a last-resort safety valve.

As in the case of regular elections, it’s up to the voters to decide whether to exercise the option.

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