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Are Recall Elections Worth the Expense?

The city of Oceanside just went through a special election which cost the taxpayers half a million dollars. This is not chump change for a city facing a $10 million budget shortfall over the next two years and facing contract negotiations with the Oceanside Firefighters Association. This election was held to recall Councilman Jerry Kern, not perceived as a friend by organized labor. The recall was funded by the government employees’ unions to the tune of $200,000 – also a good chunk of money. So, about $700,000 was spent on an election. The result: 63 percent voted against the recall. Kern stays.

Was the money wasted? Certainly, hundreds of thousands of dollars would have been saved if Kern’s opponents had waited until the June primary to schedule the recall vote. But with union contract talks imminent, they chose to move ahead, and scarce public funds were scooped out of Oceanside’s coffers. The balance of power on the city council hasn’t changed.

The price tag for the Oceanside recall was peanuts compared to the history-making recall of 2003, when voters removed California Governor Gray Davis from office. Taxpayers shoveled out $53 million to $66 million, and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa poured another $1.7 million into signature gathering and political experts to jump-start the sluggish dump-Davis campaign. It worked and Davis – who was not accused of any crime or malfeasance, but of mismanaging the state’s economy with a budget deficit of more than $30 billion – lost his job. Voters chose Arnold Schwarzenegger as Davis’ successor, and now the projected deficit is at least $21 billion. California’s financial problems remain, as does its legislative gridlock.

In San Diego County, only 30 local elected officials have been recalled in the last 30 years, while 16 others were retained in recall elections. Interestingly, in California no corruption or neglect needs to be charged. A recall can be motivated by pure dislike of the officeholder or for political purposes and still be constitutionally correct. Of the 18 other states that have recall provisions, a third of them require specific grounds such as a criminal conviction or demonstrated neglect of one’s duties.

But in California, mere dislike can be enough. In the case of San Diego City Council member Linda Bernhardt who was recalled in 1991, the chair of the recall committee said that Bernhardt treated her constituents with “apathy, arrogance and, oftentimes, dishonesty.” Egregious behavior will encourage a successful recall. Enormous amounts of money might do it, as in the case of Darrell Issa vs. Gray Davis.

But considering the odds and the current economy, a recall election is a waste of money, especially for cash-strapped communities such as Oceanside. The $500,000 of taxpayer funds that Oceanside spent on the recall election could have been used to ensure that one of the city’s four ambulances wouldn’t be taken out of service. It costs $434,000 to provide that particular public safety service. But that’s democracy for you – it’s not always cost-effective.

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