Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010
RECALLS RIDE WAVE OF DISCONTENT
By MATT WYNN
Recalls may be the latest national fad, but Omaha has long toyed with them.
Nebraska’s largest city has plenty of company in pursuing a mayoral recall. The past two years have seen efforts in such cities as Miami; Kansas City, Mo.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Flint, Mich.; Portland, Ore.; Stillwater, Okla.; Newton Falls, Ohio; and many more.
But for Omaha, this is nothing new.
Four out of the last five elected mayors have faced at least one recall attempt.
And if Mayor Jim Suttle is recalled, Omaha would be the largest city in the country to boot two sitting mayors, said Josh Spivak, a senior fellow with the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y.
Former Mayor Mike Boyle was recalled from office in 1987. The effort began after Boyle fired the police chief and following a series of lesser controversies that alienated even some of his supporters.
In Suttle’s case, opponents disagree with recent tax increases and deals the mayor brokered with city unions.
Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps will announce Saturday the results of his office’s 15-day signature-verification effort.
Phipps has scheduled a 2 p.m. press conference to announce whether the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee has the 26,643 valid signatures needed to force a recall election. The recall committee turned in about 37,600 petition signatures.
Even if it turns out enough valid signatures were turned in, a January recall election is not a sure thing. Suttle has filed a lawsuit alleging improprieties in the way signatures were gathered.
Spivak, who studies recalls, and others say recall efforts are on the rise and may be at an all-time high, though no hard numbers exist.
“There are more,” Spivak said. “You have this weapon that allows you to change when this election is going to happen. Why don’t you use it?”
In Omaha, since the 1980s, P.J. Morgan has been the only elected mayor not to face a recall effort. Attempts were made against Hal Daub, who was mayor from 1995 to 2001, and Mike Fahey, who left office in 2009.
Prior to that, the last serious recall attempt was in 1964, when a group of Omahans attempted to oust Mayor James Dworak from office.
In the efforts against Dworak, Daub and Fahey, organizers did not collect enough signatures to prompt recall elections.
Some speculate that the success of the Boyle effort has fueled the recent attempts.
Omaha’s political makeup also might factor into the city’s penchant for the process, said Rick Witmer, an associate professor of political science at Creighton University. Many citizens either consider themselves to be independent or weakly affiliated Democrats or Republicans, he said.
“As political winds change, they’re willing to go either way,” he said. “If Omaha were a predominately Republican or predominately Democrat city, I don’t think you see this.”
The city’s mayors tend to be lightning rods for discontent about local issues, regardless of the mayor’s role, Witmer said.
He said recalls are a way for citizens to have a strong voice in local politics.
“This is sort of how we can get more citizens involved in the political process,” he said. “We want as much citizen involvement in government as possible.”
In Nebraska, there are no standards for what actions justify a recall. The Nebraska League of Municipalities estimates there have been dozens of efforts across the state in the past 20 years.
In Iowa, recalls aren’t allowed under state law.
The recall effort against Suttle is being fueled by some of the same issues at play nationally, said James B. Johnson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Earlier this year, Suttle proposed a new tax on restaurant, bar and catering tabs to help shore up a police and fire pension shortfall. He also advocated an increase in the property tax rate to address a city budget shortfall.
Smaller versions of those taxes were ultimately approved by the City Council and have generated controversy.
That the recall effort was able to generate some 37,000 signatures is understandable, given the national anti-government mood, he said.
“We are in a period of high citizen discontent, and it’s kind of free-floating. So when there is something to strike out at, it is struck,” he said.
Johnson said the mayor angered organizations representing property managers and restaurant owners and that gave recall backers a ready-made network to help organize their efforts.
He said recalls give people a way to force change when they disagree with government’s actions. “That’s government at work,” he said.
The city of Livingston, Calif., with a population of about 14,000, is recovering from its own recall election. Mayor Daniel Varela was recalled in an August election, two months before his term was set to expire.
Varela had run in 2008 on a platform of cleaning up the city’s water supply, which was brown and had a sour smell.
He did so by raising water rates, and the move didn’t sit well with residents, said Vicki Lewis, Livingston’s acting city manager. Varela and a City Council member were removed from office. Their replacements immediately repealed the rate hikes.
“(A recall) means something different for every community,” Lewis said.
As to Omaha’s recall attempts, she said: “That many, it might just say something about your community and how they view government.”
Mike Wagner, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said recalls can affect how willing leaders are to make unpopular decisions.
People want crime low, streets plowed and garbage collected, but they don’t like paying more to see those things happen.
“What political leader might take steps to correct these issues if they know they’ll immediately be recalled?” Wagner asked.
Recalls can have consequences that go beyond mere political power struggles.
Take the case of tiny Tamora, Neb. Don’t bother looking for it on a map — as of Sept. 9, 1997, the village no longer existed.
“It’s a date that is engraved in my mind,” said Sherry Schweitzer, Seward County clerk. “It was kind of like the Hatfields and McCoys.”
The village was the capital of recalls, sometimes having more than one recall election a year for its board.
After years of back-and-forth power tussles, having a government became more of a hassle than it was worth.
The village voted to abolish itself, Schweitzer said, and its property went to the county.
Spivak cited in story on Omaha, Nebraska recall driveDecember 15, 2010