Day after elected officials are recalled, senator pitches bill ending practice
A day after voters in York and Hamilton County successfully recalled a mayor and county commissioner, respectively, a Nebraska state senator said the process for removing elected officials is being abused.
Sen. Curt Friesen told lawmakers Wednesday elected officials are being recalled not because they committed a crime or misused their positions, but simply because voters disagreed with decisions they made.
“If they were based on some sort of misconduct or malfeasance, not showing up for meetings or not doing your job, that’s one thing,” the Henderson senator said, adding that is not often the case.
Friesen, who sponsored a bill (LB415) to abolish the practice of recalling elected officials in Nebraska, said those leaders should not be subject to being removed from office in between elections for making difficult decisions that may be unpopular.
He pointed to the 2017 recall of a Broken Bow school board member who was removed after voting to cut the district’s budget and reduce its property tax levy, saying it would lead to school board members in other districts to think twice before taking similar action, even if it was necessary.
“In the end, it makes it difficult, I think, for boards to do their job,” he told the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Lawmakers created a procedure for recalling officials elected to city councils, county commissions, school boards, Natural Resource Districts and other local government bodies in 1994, but exempted themselves from the procedure, as well as statewide elected officials such as governors and attorney generals.
Recall organizers must obtain signatures from registered voters totaling 35 percent of the total vote cast in the last general election. The threshold is set at 45 percent for village board members.
Petitions must include the name of the official being recalled and a short statement explaining why, and can include a concise defense statement from the official being targeted for recall.
Since the law was enacted, senators have been unsuccessful in doing away with it or making changes to make the recall procedure more difficult.
The last effort was in 2007 by Sen. Mick Mines of Blair, whose proposal failed to make it out of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. Friesen said his bill was similar to Mines’.
No one testified in support of Friesen’s proposal Wednesday.
A longtime volunteer for petition drives, recall efforts and anti-retention campaigns said the tool helps citizens keep government officials in check.
Kent Bernbeck said while recalls are uncomfortable, particularly in small towns, they allow voters to remove officeholders if they veer too far from the public’s will, holding up the attempted recall of Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle in 2010 as an example.
Following several tax hikes in Omaha early in Suttle’s tenure, citizens organized a petition drive to hold a recall election for the Democratic mayor.
The League of Nebraska Municipalities said it saw the recall option as “a double-edged sword.”
“Sometimes, there are elected officials that probably should no longer be serving,” said Christy Abraham, a former Government Committee legal counsel who testified on behalf of the League, “but (recall petitions) can divide communities terribly and pit neighbor against neighbor.”
Failed efforts to amend the law in the past sought to limit recall reasons to “malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance,” requiring a court to determine if those standards had been met, Abraham said.
Concern over how voters would interpret the judge’s ruling over the standards helped sink those changes, she added.
Friesen said he would be willing to working on a compromise that kept the recall procedure in place but made a recall tougher to achieve — a goal he said would protect the integrity of the state’s governing bodies.
He also said he was willing to make senators subject to the same standard as local elected officials, who he said make difficult decisions that affect neighbors and family members.
“If it’s good for the city council, it’s good for the state senator,” he said.