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Recall campaigns become a growing hazard for mayors

The throw-the-rascals-out mood is so strong these days that some voters are not even waiting until Election Day – they are mounting recall campaigns to oust mayors in the middle of their terms, often as punishment for taking unpopular steps like raising taxes or laying off workers to keep their cities solvent.

Daniel Varela Sr., the rookie mayor of Livingston, Calif., learned this the hard way when he was booted from office last month in a landslide recall election. His crime? He had the temerity to push through the small city’s first water-rate increase in more than a decade to try to fix its aging water system, which he said spewed brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes.

"We were trying to be responsible," said Varela, whose action set off a lawsuit in addition to his recall as mayor of Livingston, which is in the Central Valley. "But as soon as the rates started to kick in, people who weren’t paying attention were suddenly irate."

With irate voters in plentiful supply, recall campaigns have become a growing job hazard for mayors. Over the past two years, failed recall campaigns have sought the ouster of mayors in Akron, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Flint, Mich.; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; and Toledo, Ohio, among other cities. Next month the voters of North Pole, Alaska, 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle, will vote on whether to recall their mayor.

Recalls rarely get on the ballot, let alone succeed, but they are bringing the era of permanent, acrimonious campaigning to city halls. Tom Cochran, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said that the rash of recent attempts had inspired him to start making a video to teach mayors about the risk of recall.

"I’m absolutely convinced that we’ve got more going on than before," said Cochran, who attributed the increase to the dismal economy and to the proliferation of blogs and social networking sites that make it easier for opponents to organize.

It is not an easy time to be a mayor. At city halls, deficits are not viewed as some far-off problem, as they often are at the federal level, but as gaping holes that must be filled at once by raising taxes or cutting services.

And because city services have a clear impact on people’s day-to-day lives – think police protection or garbage pickup – those cuts generate huge outcries. Tellingly, many recent recall campaigns have been spurred not by accusations of corruption but by anger over higher taxes or reduced services.

Tea Party activists in several states have tried to recall mayors and lawmakers, and they came close to forcing a vote this year on whether to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield of Chattanooga. The local Tea Party bonded with several other groups to seek the recall of Littlefield, largely because they objected to his decision to raise storm-water fees to comply with federal environmental regulations, and to raise property taxes.

"Those are unpopular things, not things that anyone likes to do, but sometimes in a community you have to step up and do what has to be done," Littlefield said. "I hope that the recall environment does not become so pervasive that it discourages people from doing the right thing."

The mayor’s opponents collected more than 15,000 signatures in their effort to recall him, but a judge ruled this month that many were invalid and that the groups had failed to collect enough valid signatures to force a recall vote.

Littlefield said that the episode had been a major distraction just as the city was eagerly waiting for its new Volkswagen plant to go into production.

Supporters of recalls say they provide a much-needed check on power and give citizens the ability to oust officials accused of corruption. In Bell, Calif., a small working-class city near Los Angeles that became notorious for paying its city manager nearly $800,000 a year, a citizens group was already seeking the recall of several city officials before eight current or former officials were arrested on charges of corruption this week.

But opponents of recalls complain that they often allow a small minority of people to upend the political process.

That appears to have happened last year in Akron, where the longtime mayor, Donald L. Plusquellic, who has been widely credited with reviving the city’s downtown since taking office in 1987, found himself facing a heated recall campaign. The campaign began after he made unpopular proposals to raise taxes and to create a college scholarship fund for all Akron students by selling or leasing the city’s sewer system, both of which failed.

Getting a recall question on the ballot required gathering the signatures of 20 percent of the people who voted in the last election. But because Plusquellic had run unopposed in his last general election, few people had voted, so fewer than 3,200 signatures were required to force a recall election in a city of more than 200,000 people.

"It was something like 3 percent of the city’s adult population," Plusquellic said. "They claim it’s democracy. I claim it’s an abuse of democracy. You can find 3 percent against the Constitution of the United States, 3 percent against democracy, against the Bible."

Plusquellic prevailed in the recall election by a ratio of three to one. Afterward, Akron revised its charter to require the signatures of 20 percent of the city’s registered voters to put a recall question on the ballot.

It is difficult to say for certain how many recalls there are; many are made at local levels of government, like school boards or the councils of small towns. At least 29 states allow for the recall of some local officials.

Recall campaigns have sought the removal of Democrats, like Plusquellic, in Akron; Republicans, like Mayor Vincent R. Barrella of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.; and mayors who were elected in nonpartisan campaigns, like Littlefield in Chattanooga.

But several mayors say they believe that recall efforts have become more common as the economic downturn has soured the electorate.

Flint, of course, was hurting before the national downturn hit – and it was a hotbed of recalls before the trend spread. One Flint mayor was recalled in 2002; another resigned in 2009, just before another recall election was scheduled.

This year the new mayor, Dayne Walling – a young, energetic former Rhodes scholar – found himself fighting yet another recall campaign after he laid off police officers and firefighters to try to make ends meet in a city with an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent.

"Having to make public-safety layoffs is something that I’d hoped to never have to do," said Walling, who noted that he had resorted to layoffs only after the police and fire unions failed to agree to the concessions he had sought, and after he cut his own salary, auctioned off the mayor’s car and started paying his own cell phone bills.

When the latest recall was derailed in court this month, the mayor posted the news on his blog: "Flint’s recall fever has broken."


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