2017-04-20 / Editorial

Recall process for elected officials gives public power

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

I’m a firm believer in governmental accountability even when it comes to myself. We need to ensure we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Sadly there are limited tools at the public’s disposal beyond waiting around until the next election.

As a result, I’m seeking to create a pathway for residents to retain control over elected officials who are not representing the best interests of their constituents and are exhibiting conduct unbecoming of the position and title they hold.

In short, I want to give the power back into the hands of the people.

I’ve introduced a measure to create a recall process of local and state elected officials to provide the public an extra tool of governmental accountability, especially when other elected officials fail to hold each other and each branch of government to task. We saw this during the impeachment conversations surrounding the governor where the Legislature failed to ascertain the facts and investigate the erratic and questionable actions of our chief executive. The Legislature is supposed to be a check on executive branch power, especially when there is a question of possible abuse of that power. But this bill is about much more.

On the surface, it would be easy to view this bill as a direct response to the governor, but there is a reason why I include each level of government in this bill. This is about holding all of us accountable not just about one position or about one man. In fact, by the time this would be in effect and in place, it wouldn’t really impact the current occupant of the Blaine House.

If passed into law, this recall process would be in place for anyone from town select board members to mayors, legislators, all the way to the governor. If I could include members of Congress without having the entire measure’s constitutionality be called into question, I would have. Our congressional delegation should not be immune to the wishes of the general public.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, recall is a procedure that allows citizens to remove and replace a public official before the end of a term of office.

Nineteen states have varying degrees of recall provisions for their state elected officials. These states are as follows: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin.

Interestingly enough, recall has been used most often at the local level. By some estimates, three-fourths of recall elections are at the city council or school board level. I actually found this quite surprising. When you zero-in on just the recall for local elected officials, the number of states that have some version of recall provisions actually expands to 29 total states. Maine is actually in the minority in regards to what other states do on this issue.

As we’ve heard a few negative cases where the recall provision might have been abused, I wanted to ensure the policy we crafted had a high bar for grounds to recall someone and ensure bipartisan outcry for a recall through strengthened signature gathering requirements.

The grounds for recalling a local or state official would be: neglect of duty, misuse of office or incompetence in the performance of duties, conviction of a drug related crime, criminal conduct, corruption, misappropriation of public funds, obstruction of voter-approved initiatives, or violations of ethics laws. Who wants any elected official to stay in office that did any of those? We need to hold our elected officials to a higher standard. They should be the ones to set the positive example.

The Secretary of State’s Office in conjunction with the Maine Ethics Commission would write rules surrounding this and be responsible for determining eligibility of grounds for a recall petition to be collected. This preapproval process would ensure that before a single petition would be collected, the grounds for recall would have to be submitted and clearly established in order to proceed.

Six months would have to elapse in someone’s term of public office before a recall petition drive can be started and the same for the last six months of a term.

According to my bill, a recall petition must collect signatures totaling no less than 15 percent of the voters in the last election for that particular position. In some cases this would represent a higher percentage than the requirement for ballot referendums. The party affiliation of the petitions collected must be proportional to the party affiliation of the voters in the previous election for that position. This is done to ensure it’s not a one sided, partisan situation. That there would have to be broad bipartisan consensus that the individual in question needed to be recalled.

To recap, this bill creates a way for Mainers to hold government officials like myself accountable from town council to the governor; uses an increased difficulty level to move forward with the petitioning process with significant grounds for recall; requires a high amount of petitions needed to be collected including from a bipartisan cross section within an electoral district.

I don’t want this abused. I don’t want a recall election held every year. That’s not the objective. It would be costly, time consuming, and counterproductive to doing the people’s business. The goal is to have a targeted approach in the rare instances where there is very little recourse for voters beyond waiting around until the next election to remove someone from office. Now it’s time for Maine to adopt a recall process for elected officials.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.com.

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