Should It Really Be Easier to Remove Local Officials?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The LA Times’ George Skelton argues in a recent column that the case of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is evidence that California local governments need more tools for removing officeholders. Filner, in his view, was too hard to remove from office, given the expense and difficulty of recalling mayors in San Diego. Skelton wants an impeachment process that would allow city councils, perhaps via unanimous vote, to remove mayors.

That sounds reasonable in the narrow context of Filner. But it looks counterproductive when you look more broadly at local elections in California.

Those elections are defined by their low voter turnout – and the resulting dominance of the conversation by two groups:  public employee unions and developers, whose contributions tend to determine who wins and who loses. That dominance, as my co-author Mark Paul and I showed in California Crackup, is in large part a product of California’s heavily centralized system of government. Local government officials, with limited power to tax, must focus on spending, and the people with the most at stake in spending decisions are employees and developers.

Too many Californians believe – and with good reason – that their local elections don’t matter enough to be worthy of their time. So you tell me: in that context, does it make sense to make local elections even less important by making it easier to overturn their verdicts?

That’s essentially the argument of Skelton and others who want to strengthen local recalls (of which California already has more than any other state) and create tools to remove mayors. People tend to vote more often when the stakes are higher. If an election result is easier to overturn, the stakes of that election are low. And low-stakes elections are bad for communities, in the sense that people don’t engage, talk to each other about their communities’ problems, and share what they know about the candidates.

San Diego’s most recent election was a major community failure. There was a ton of information about Filner and the fact that he was unsuited for office, but it never reached the broader public, because the people who had the information didn’t share it. There wasn’t enough talk. Essentially, the people who kept the information to themselves made the judgment that the stakes weren’t high enough to risk sharing the info.

Making it easier to remove people would, if anything, reinforce that sort of negative cycle of holding back. It would be far better to raise the stakes of local elections. One way to do that would be to decentralize California’s system so that local officials have more power.

Another way would be to make it clear that once you vote for a local official in California, you’re stuck with that person for the full term. The message to people and communities would be: engage in your local elections, deliberate and consider your choices, and for goodness sakes get out to the public all relevant information about the candidates.

One way to encourage that message would be to do the opposite of what Skelton and others suggest: make it harder to remove local officials from office before their term is up. We could have a package of reforms to make recalls more daunting. To remind ourselves of the consequences of not engaging in local elections, we might call the reform package the Filner Headlock.

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