A dirty little word (and bumper sticker!) has been making the rounds lately: Recall, that legal means of ousting an elected official, has become a buzzword around town.
Most of the palace intrigue has centered on Mayor Bob Filner, with lesser focus on City Council President Todd Gloria and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith (Disclosure: I spent several months working for Filner’s mayoral campaign during the 2012 primary). The extent of any real public “discussion,” however, has largely been friendly dinner conversations, social gossip and a questionable phone poll. Oh, and the churlish bumper sticker.
What has missing from all the breezy talk of voter-approved usurpation is a solid explication of what exactly the recall process entails, and what it means for San Diego. With the help from the city clerk’s website and Chapter 2, Article 7, Division 27 of the Municipal Code, we’ve outlined the messy, drawn-out process below.
• An elected official can only be recalled after serving a minimum of six months in office.
• A successful recall petition requires the signatures of at least 15 percent of the registered voting population for the prior general election. So a recall petition for a city elected official would need 101,596 San Diegans’ signatures. For council members, the signature number required is 15 percent of voters in that district.
Phase 1: Opening Volleys and Petition Gatherings
• In a daily newspaper, an individual must circulate a notice of intention to recall an elected official, providing both a 300-word reason for the petition and the signature of either the individual advancing the petition or representatives of the organization(s) backing the effort.
• Within five days of the newspaper announcement, a copy of the notice must be served to the official in question.
• Within 10 days of the notice’s publication, a copy of the notice and an affidavit of publication must be filed with the city clerk’s office.
• The elected official has within 14 days of the notice’s publication to file with the city clerk an official answer to the recall petition, which will be included on the recall petition.
• Three weeks after the publication of the notice, petition recalls can be circulated. The petitions include the reason for the petition, as well as the official answer from the elected official or a designee. Any registered voter within the city can sign the petition, but must provide a home address.
• Within 60 days of the notice’s publication, the recall petitions must be filed to the city clerk. This leaves 39 days, or a little under six weeks, to collect the 101,596 valid signatures.
Phase 2: Verification Purgatory
The city clerk has 30 days to verify the signatories of the petition. Unless challenged, the city clerk will use a random sampling method to verify signatures.
What is described below, and the adjoining timeline, is one possible way the process could unfold. But there are numerous scenarios that could play out, each with a varying timetable.
• Upon finishing the verification process, the city clerk informs the petitioning party and then immediately presents the certified petition to the City Council.
• No more than four days after the announcement of sufficiency, any elector (i.e. — voter) in the city can challenge the clerk’s determination. The individual is responsible for covering the costs incurred by the clerk’s office in verifying every single signature. The challenge is the best bet by the elected official or his or her supporters to quash the potential recall process.
• In the instance that the city clerk determines the number of signatures to be insufficient, the recall proponents have up to 30 days to file one supplemental petition.
What remains legally ambiguous is whether signatures can continuously be collected after the original deadline for filing the petitions. If so, then recall proponents could have upward of 70 extra days to collect signatures.
• The city clerk has 30 days from the submission of the supplemental petition to verify signatures.
Phase 3: Total Recall (Election)
• Should the city clerk report to the council that the recall petition collected a sufficient number of signatures, the council will immediately call for a special recall election.
• The council must set the recall election no less than 60 and no more than 90 days from the date of the petition certification. If another election falls within 120 days of the certification date, however, the council can choose to combine the election.
• The recall ballot shall contain two questions: 1) whether to recall the elected official in question, and 2) who shall potentially be elected to fill that office. The Municipal Code states that the nomination of replacement candidates shall conform to the practices of municipal elections, “if practicable.” The city’s election code lays out the standard month-long process of filing papers and collecting signatures to qualify as a candidate for office. A potentially modified process would be in place to qualify for the recall ballot.
• If a majority of voters decides that the elected official should be removed from office, the winner of the recall election will simply be the highest vote-getter. It bears repeating — a majority is not needed. Just the most votes. That means in a potentially crowded field of candidates, someone could win with only 25-30 percent of the vote, so long as they had more votes than all the others. High name ID, and very quick access to capital will go a long way toward determining who could emerge victorious after a two-month campaign.
One important final note: Only voters who first weigh in on the question of the recall can have their votes counted toward the election of the successor. Gives whole new meaning to “vote early, vote often.”
So, when some talking head or public relations flack invokes the specter of a “recall,” keep in mind what they are describing is actually a brutal five- to eight-month process that will consume untold millions of public and private dollars and grind municipal government to a chaotic halt.
Zachary Warma is the events and community manager for Voice of San Diego. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-550-5664.