Recalls: Dispatches from History Man

A judge who got caught up in a prostitution sting and still refuses to say what actually happened. Two evangelical Christian school board members, a young San Diego councilwoman and more obscure backcountry elected officials than you can shake a ballot box at.

What do they have in common? Pink slips, courtesy of voters, before their terms were up. Also known as recalls.

But in the big scheme of things, their numbers are rare: According to the county registrar of voters, only 30 local elected officials have been recalled since 1979. Another 16 officials — including city council, school board and water board members, among others — were retained in recall elections.

The newest to join the exclusive I-Survived-a-Recall club is Oceanside Councilman Jerry Kern, who made it unscathed through a recall election yesterday. Voters supported him by a margin of 63 to 37 percent.

The city of Oceanside gets to pay for the special election, which the Union-Tribune says will cost $500,000.

This kerfuffle-by-the-sea made us wonder: Do local recalls ever actually succeed? And how common are they, anyway?

As the registrar’s numbers show, recalls are quite rare, considering that dozens upon dozens of people hold elected office in the county at any one time. Just think of all the city councils, school boards, water boards, hospital boards and on and on.

When recalls do occur, they don’t tend to bring out the voters.

The Ramona water district in rural East County was a hot bed of recalls in the 1990s, but one election drew just 18 percent of registered voters.

One recall drew national attention: In 1994, voters in the Vista area of North County sacked two conservative Christian school board members. With another ally, they’d taken over the local school board and tried to institute new policies regarding the teaching of evolution (skepticism was encouraged) and sex education (one favored textbook warned students to “Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date”).

I covered the Vista school board at the time and still remember the stunned look on the face of the recalled trustees as the returns at downtown San Diego’s Golden Hall.

The city of San Diego has only had one recall in the past three decades, and it succeeded. In 1991, voters in the Fifth District recalled 31-year-old Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt by a margin of 70 to 30 percent. Fewer than a third of registered voters bothered to vote.

Bernhardt, now a land-use consultant in Los Angeles, was under fire for, among other things, her role in controversial redistricting.

Recalls, along with referenda (when voters consider killing a law) and initiatives (when they consider making a new one), may seem about American as Ponzi schemes and polyester-cotton. But only some states allow voters to fire local officials that they’d elected earlier, said Joseph F. Zimmerman, a State University of New York professor who studies the history of elections.

In New York, for example, only the governor can remove a local elected official from office.

But California, along with states in the West and Midwest, got swept up in the populist and progressive reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Political parties weren’t as entrenched in California as they were in the Northeast, Zimmerman said, and that helped election reform flourish.

Recalls in San Diego weren’t terribly common back in the early days of last century, although voters did dump three school board members in 1918 in the county’s first successful recall. Their ouster came after a well-publicized flap over the firing of teachers and the superintendent that led to a student strike and protest march.

Are recalls ever appropriate? I turned to an expert for an answer. In “extreme cases,” said local attorney Lewis A. Wenzell, who was recalled in 1982 after serving as a San Diego judge. “I didn’t think mine was that extreme.”

(He’d actually resigned as judge before the recall election, according to the Los Angeles Times, but it went ahead anyway.)

Wenzell was targeted because he’d been convicted of soliciting prostitution, but the conviction was later overturned. He still won’t talk about what happened.

“It’s none of your business,” he said in an interview. “I never said a word in the whole case about anything, and I’m not going to start now.”

In the Wenzell recall vote, 83 percent of those voting supported his eviction from office.

Only one other recent recall election has had a higher voter margin in favor. It came in 2005, when 90 percent of voters supported ousting a member of the board of the Rainbow water district, which covers a North County town near Fallbrook.

I’ll save that story — and I’m assuming it must be a humdinger — for later.

– RANDY DOTINGA

 

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Andrew Donohue

Andrew Donohue
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