Benton Harbor City Commissioner Trenton Bowens contacted me over the weekend to tell me that he was potentially facing a recall election. At issue was his vote to allow a tax proposal to be placed on the ballot for voter consideration. The cash-strapped and democracy-starved city, which has long been under state-mandated emergency management, remains among the poorest in the state. Exploring revenue options is the responsibility of any good leader. The commissioner was simply doing his job.
Bowens, a Democrat, said of the proposal “Enough is enough. It’s simple. Let the people decide.” Yet, Benton Harbor activists and local Republicans didn’t see it that way. After launching a successful campaign to defeat the tax, they have additionally decided to go after the 25 year-old commissioner. The notion of the public even being allowed to consider a tax hike was too much for them.
Are recalls the problem?
The jury is still out as to whether Michigan will see a decline in recalls after tighter restrictions were passed by the state’s legislature last year. Initially, Democrats had been on board with the idea, as had many pundits and policy wonks. The theory was that after the frenzy of recall efforts in 2011, there could be a massive retaliation, so amending the state law would protect everyone and make for overall smoother governance.
However, Democrats soon discovered they’d been duped in light of the frenzy of GOP lame-duck legislating in December of 2012, which included among other gems, right-to-work. Republicans had insulated themselves from the predictable backlash over the law.
Public Acts 417 and 418 placed a number of new restrictions on the recall process. Among them is a requirement that the petition language be “factual”, as compared to the previous standard which simply called for “clarity”. It is debatable as to whether this provision of the law complies with Michigan’s Constitution which demands recall language only be clear and understandable without a requirement to justify the reasoning behind the petition. The law is new, and remains ripe for a constitutional challenge.
Recalls are as American as apple pie. The first record of them goes back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. While various states have different rules governing the specifics, they are here to stay. (A fun fact for our Tea Party friends: your cherished Anti-Federalist Papers strongly advocated for the right to recall).
The wave of national recalls in 2011 removed nearly half of the approximately 150 elected officials from office. Most prominent here in Michigan was the ouster of the Republican House Education Committee Chair, Rep. Paul Scott (R-51). A move that earned the Michigan Education Association, a key player in the recall, the ire and retaliation of multiple GOP forces. They subsequently appointed inexperienced lawmaker, Lisa Posthumus-Lyons (R-86) to head the committee, with marching orders to destroy the union. The bulk of her policy has been directed to that end, with little focused on the realities of public education.
The notion that recalls are a frequent occurrence in Michigan just isn’t borne-out by the numbers. The Citizens Research Council found that the state averages 38 recalls a year, meaning that only 0.2 percent of officials eligible for recall are targeted. The number of recalls has been trending upward from 2000 to 2011, with a peak of 87 in 2006, yet it is worth noting that dissatisfaction with government is closely tied to the economy.
The vast majority of Michigan recalls are at the township, village and city level — accounting for 9 out of 10 efforts. State level officials come in at 0.4 percent, with school boards and counties making up the rest. It turns out, the Paul Scott recall was a statistical fluke, but it still rattled GOP lawmakers.
In small towns like Benton Harbor, recalls are rough on the fabric of the community — they get personal for everybody. The tiny town of Hesperia, population 900, just went through a brutal school board recall election initiated over the firing of a varsity wrestling coach. The vote was mixed, with one official keeping his position and another ousted. Wrestling coach preferences probably shouldn’t rise to the level of holding an expensive and contentious election — a bad use of resources and even worse juju for the community.
However, there remain times when to not recall should be a crime. Buena Vista Township Clerk, Gloria Platko, needs to go. Recall petition language was filed against her last week:
We the residents of Buena Vista Charter Township expect our leaders to display good judgment in their interactions with their constituents and their colleagues. Our Township Clerk, Gloria Platko, has displayed conduct and behaviors unbecoming of her position including calling our Township Supervisor, Dwayne Parker, an ‘Arrogant N-Word’ in January 2013. For this reason, in pursuant of Michigan Election Law Act 116-1954-XXXVI, we the residents of Buena Vista Charter Township call for the recall of the Buena Vista Township Clerk Gloria Platko.
But, not all recalls are so clear for the voters to decide.
Several years ago in my small community of Acme, we experienced a recall election of the entire township board — an action set in motion by a fake grassroots group that was created and funded through a complex scheme that involved Meijer, Inc., a major public relations firm out of Grand Rapids and a prestigious law firm from the Detroit area. The retail giant wanted to develop in the area, unfettered by local government. The recall failed, and subsequently their nefarious plot was revealed when some campaign finance violations tripped-up the perpetrators. Few people though have been punished for their misdeeds, but the lead attorney who stood at the nexus of the hoax still faces discipline before the Attorney Grievance Commission. He could be dis-barred.
Although recalls are hard on the officials targeted, they remain a part of the tradition of our democratic process. They certainly continue to offer the potential for abuse, even under the stricter laws in Michigan. Another hazard is, a failed recall attempt is frequently viewed as vindication, giving rise to the kind of arrogance we see in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. As if he wasn’t bad enough before he survived the recall vote, he dialed-up the hubris to maximum afterwards, assuming an absolute mandate was his for the taking. Michigan’s Gov. Snyder, ever-so-slightly more nuanced, kept a cool head and proceeded to sign right-to-work legislation in to law. Are the two connected? We’ll have to wait for his memoirs. Neither Walker or Snyder should be patting themselves on the back though — in our nation’s history, only two governors have ever been successfully recalled, although many have deserved it. It’s a tough campaign to win.
The potential recall election for Bowens is not yet approved. The petition language will be reviewed on December 6th, with a possible ballot placement in May of 2014. The sad irony is that while the failed tax proposal would have spread the city’s debt service over a wide population, including non-resident employees, Emergency Manager Tony Saunders has now solicited the state for a $2.4 million dollar loan that will become the sole responsibility of city residents, without them having a say in the decision. Consequences for defaulting on this type of loan can be dire, including dissolution of the municipality. Suddenly, a city tax is looking like a pretty good deal.
And…so much for the claims of fiscal responsibility.
For the sake of Benton Harbor, let’s hope voters make the correct decision, and retain smart leaders like Trenton Bowens.
Update: reference to “Tea Party activists” was changed to “activists”.
Amy Kerr Hardin