You're fired! Voter recall of elected officials in Rhode Island, 0617 RIBJ, RIBJ, 65 RI Bar J., No. 6, Pg. 17

 
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You're fired! Voter recall of elected officials in Rhode Island

Vol. 65 No. 6 Pg. 17

Rhode Island Bar Journal

June, 2017

         This past Election Day provided the setting for an unusual campaign. Citizens stationed outside precincts in a Providence neighborhood engaged voters in a discussion about their incumbent City Councilman, when neither his name nor the office he held was on the ballot. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the councilman sued his constituents in Superior Court (and appealed to the Supreme Court) to enjoin their Election Day activities.[1] When his claim for judicial relief was denied, the councilman hit the campaign trail, discouraging his constituents from speaking to the volunteers or signing the petitions on which his name appeared.[2] The incumbent in question is in the middle of a four-year term, and his constituents canvassed signatures to authorize a special election to decide whether he should be recalled from office.

         The Election Day campaign yielded more than 1,800 signatures.[3] In March, 2017, the Board of Canvassers certified petitions containing 2,383 signatures, and a recall election is currently scheduled for May 2, 2017.[4] To the best of the knowledge of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns,[5] this effort will make history if it succeeds, as previous recall campaigns in Rhode Island have been generally rare and uniformly unsuccessful.

         While the political consequences (if any) will be local, the Constitutional and policy issues this campaign raises may help answer several questions about the form of representative democracy that prevails in the State of Rhode Island. When voters elect someone to a fixed term of office, by what measures (if any) should the official be held accountable prior to the next election? If voters are granted the authority to retract their approval mid-term, should this power be plenary, or should it be limited to specific types of official misconduct? When voters exercise this power, what boundaries (in terms of timing or thresholds of petition signatures) should be imposed? If the current Providence recall campaign succeeds, will it be a victory for the voters, or the opening of a Pandora's box of a "permanent campaign" that makes it impossible for elected officials to govern in a community's long-term interest?

         To help understand these issues, this article first will review the recall election process in Rhode Island, describing notable prior (failed) efforts and governing municipal and State law. It will then offer a brief overview of experience and laws in other states. Finally, it will discuss how the different forms of recall law advance public policy goals, suggesting ways to improve our current structure.

         I. Recalls in Rhode Island

         A. Attempted Recalls

         The closest any Rhode Island community came to recalling an elected official probably happened in Exeter in December, 2013. At that time, the Rhode Island Firearms League aimed their sights at four Exeter Town Council members who had passed an ordinance regulating the issuance of concealed weapons permits by the Town Clerk.[6] To support their efforts, the Firearms League established a political action committee with the pretentious name of "We the People," which poured several thousand dollars of ammunition into their campaign. When the people of Exeter spoke, the recall effort failed by a roughly two-to-one margin.[7]

         Other recall efforts in Rhode Island did not even reach the ballot. In 2014, a group of Woonsocket voters filed an initial affidavit seeking the recall of two City Council members because of their vote in favor of all-day kindergarten, but the proponents failed to collect sufficient signatures to require a recall vote.[8] In Tiverton in 2015, citizens targeted three Town Council members for a range of issues, including a vote concerning development of a mall.[9] The effort ended when the proponents failed to collect enough signatures necessary to put it on the ballot. Also in 2015, citizens began the process to recall the North Smithfield Town Administrator for his claimed "lack of leadership" and support of a controversial charter school, but their effort also failed due to a lack of signatures.[10] The League of Cities and Towns is unaware of any other efforts in recent history.[11]

         Rhode Island voters amended Article IV, Section 1 of its Constitution to permit recall elections of the State’s general officers with the introduction of four-year terms in the 1994 election. The Constitution does not provide for the recall of members of the General Assembly. There is no reported instance of a recall petition of a Rhode Island general officer reaching a significant stage of progress.

         B. Rhode Island laws governing recall elections

         As displayed in a chart at the end of this article, the charters of nineteen Rhode Island cities and towns permit recall of certain local legislators, administrators and other elected officials under widely varying procedures and requirements.[12] The Providence Home Rule Charter, whose provisions were tested in Superior Court in October and likely will be again this spring, contains the following typical combination:

         The time window for recalling a Providence Mayor or City Council member opens after the official has been in office for at least six months, and closes a year before the conclusion of their four-year terms.[13] To start the process, a resident must present a declaration of intent with the signatures of 300 (City Council) or 1,000 (Mayor) signatures of qualified City electors for the position in question.[14] Once the signatures are verified, the proponents have 120 days in which to collect signatures of 15% of the City’s qualified electors (Mayor) or 20% of the qualified electors of the council member’s ward.[15] If these signatures are verified, a special election will take place within 60 days on the specific question of whether the incumbent be removed from office.[16] If the majority of votes cast favor removal, the incumbent will be deemed removed upon certification by the board of canvassers.[17] The resulting vacancy will then be filled with a special election.[18] The City Council has the authority to adopt legislation to implement the Charter provisions,[19] but has not exercised that authority to date.

         Following the pattern of other Rhode Island municipalities, the Providence recall process does not limit the reasons voters may choose to recall their elected officials; instead, elected officials are effectively “employees at will”...

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