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Recall Reforms

Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Jake McGoldrick are the subject
of politically motivated recalls.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Joe Lynn

June 14, 2007

In the old days, they carted off nobles they didn't like to molder in dungeons and towers. Then they could appoint more loyal fiefs in their place.

Here in modern San Francisco, they get a recall going. Then the mayor can appoint more loyal supervisors in their place.

The system we use is more medieval than democratic! Until now, there have been no fewer than five recall efforts during the Newsom administration. McGoldrick and Peskin have groups that have filed with the Department of Elections. Ed Jew has a six month period of immunity from recall, but recall is rushing along with the potential charges of official misconduct. Mayor Newsom’s campaign site has a pledge by a supporter to recall Supervisor Daly. Some others have talked of recalling Mayor Newsom. That adds up to five recall campaigns.

I support the theory that the people are sovereign. I support the power of the people to recall any elected officer. They should be able to recall their elected leaders for any reason. Thus there is no requirement that malfeasance be involved in a recall. As a practical matter though, the sovereignty of the people stands in direct contrast to the political power we allow to concentrations of money. In other elections, we turn to campaign finance regulations for our protections. Yet we have allowed recalls to go unregulated.

In addition, recalls involve other assaults on the principle of popular sovereignty. Successful recalls may supplant a recalled officer with a candidate less acceptable to the people. For example, an elected official might not command the 50% majority needed to withstand a recall, yet still be elected if allowed to stand in the election for the successor. In San Francisco, we give the extraordinary power to appoint a successor to the Mayor unlike the State system that gives it to popular vote.

Here are some ideas to consider to reform our laws:

Establish contribution limits. Since the recall is not a candidate election, it becomes a ballot measure. Ballot measures are not subject to contribution limits because money given to ballot measures normally does not normally benefit any candidate or elected official. Obviously, that line of reasoning is not applicable to a recall measure where contributions are tied directly to the fate of the folks vying for the office. We need to conform the contribution limits of recall measures to those we associate with elections of City Officers. Thus, we would cap the contributions at $500 and include the other prohibitions as well (no corporate contributions, aggregating affiliated entity contributions, etc). This single reform should be passed on an emergency basis.

Provide public financing. We should make public financing available to parties involved in the recall who are willing to limit their spending. The same arguments in favor of candidate public financing apply.

Elect the successor. Right now, the Mayor appoints the successor to a recalled office. This flies in the face of the principle that the people should choose. It also gives the Mayor a strong incentive to support recalls since he/she will be given a chance to appoint a crony to the office, thereby increasing the political power of the Mayor. Stories already hint that the Mayor is involved in the McGoldrick recall as folks have noted the links to the involvement of the political consultants of Google and Earthlink.

By providing for elections of the successors, we remove the Mayor’s office from undue suspicion. In any event, the people should decide the successor as they do at the State level

Allow the recalled candidate to run for election. If an officer is recalled, that person may still be the choice of the majority of voters to serve in the office! For example, Gavin Newsom might be successfully recalled by a majority of voters wanting someone else, yet he would win a Ranked Choice Voting contest because no candidate would surface more popular than him. If that is the case, allowing him to win office in the election accompanying the recall honors the principle of popular sovereignty.

Identify paid signature gatherers. We should take the lead from the City of Santa Monica and require those who are paid to gather signatures for any ballot measure to identify themselves. Otherwise, the public can be misled into thinking that a groundswell of public support is indicated by an army of paid signature gatherers. This proposal is in line with traditional campaign finance disclosure laws that require committee information to be posted on flyers, signs and mailers. In this case, the disclosure is carried by an individual rather than the advertisement.

Joe Lynn was the campaign finance officer and office manager of the San Francisco Ethics Commission from 1998 to 2003. From 2003 to 2006, he served as one of the five Ethics Commissioners. The San Francisco Examiner called him “the backbone of the Ethics Commission.” While on staff, he was named SF Government Employee of the Year by the SF Weekly in 2003. Mayor Willie Brown gave him two awards for his mentorship work He also received two commendations from the Board of Supervisors, one initiated by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom and the other by then-Board President Matt Gonzalez. The Northern California Society of Professional Journalists presented him the James Madison Freedom of Information Award in 2003. He managed the City’s electronic campaign finance program (named best in the country by the Center for Governmental Studies) and the conflict of interest program (named best in the state by the Montclarion). He maintains an active interest in good government laws. Email Joe at joelynn114@hotmail.com


Editor's Note: Views expressed by columnists published on FogCityJournal.com are not necessarily the views or beliefs of Fog City Journal. Fog City Journal supports free speech in all its varied forms and provides a forum for a complete spectrum of viewpoints.



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