By Paul Rozycki
For the fourth time in as many mayors, Flint’s mayor is facing a recall election. However, unlike the recall of Woodrow Stanley in 2002, the near-recall of Don Williamson (before resignation) in 2009, and the attempted recall of Dayne Walling in 2010, this November’s recall election will be different—and may surprise voters.
The official reason given for the recall of Mayor Weaver is the dispute over Flint’s trash pickup contract, where Weaver supported Rizzo Environmental Services, and most of the city council supported Republic Waste Services. Republic ultimately was awarded the contract.
Change in the recall law
In the past, recall elections were two-stage affairs. Voters would vote yes or no on whether or not to recall an official and then, if the official was recalled, an election would be scheduled to fill the seat, perhaps some months later.
Changes in Michigan’s recall law in 2012 now make recalls a one-step process. On November’s ballot there won’t be a yes or no vote on recalling Mayor Weaver. There will simply be a list of candidates, including Mayor Karen Weaver, and whoever gets the most votes will serve out the remainder of her term. At the moment, there are 18 candidates to be listed on the ballot. (See special election section in this issue). If Weaver wins she would, of course, continue to serve her full term, until 2019. If anyone other than Mayor Weaver were elected, they would take office as soon as the votes were certified, most likely within a week or so.
Currently 19 states allow recall of state officials and at least 29 states allow the voters to remove local officials, at least in some limited circumstances. Michigan allows recall of all state and local officials except judges, and we have had some form of recall since 1908. We’ve had a long tradition of using the recall very frequently, particularly against local officials. At times it seemed that one could rarely go through three weeks of local headlines without reading of some attempt to recall a local township, city or village official in Genesee County. All too often it became a local sport, where a losing candidate would initiate recall proceedings shortly after the election, often for trivial reasons.
Why the law changed
This gave Michigan one of the highest number of recall attempts in the nation. Though many were not successful, it meant that local officials were frequently tied up in recall elections for much of their time in office. Michigan’s recalls surpassed other states by a good margin. A report by the Citizens Research Council indicated that between 2000 and 2011, 457 state and local officials faced recalls in the state. For that time period, the average number of recalls in Michigan was 38 per year. California’s average was a distant second with only 18. In 2011, by one calculation, nearly a third of Michigan’s 148 lawmakers faced the threat of recall campaign, though only one actually went before the voters. Another report indicated that nearly 700 petitions for recall were filed in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties between 2005 and 2010, though most didn’t get to the ballot stage. Since the passage of the law in 2012 the number of recalls has dropped dramatically.
The changes in the recall law also came shortly after the Right to Work legislation was passed, during the lame duck session of 2012, causing some to suggest that the lawmakers were acting to prevent their own removal over the controversial measure.
For those reasons, Michigan changed its recall law, making it more difficult to remove local officials. The new law reduced the time to collect signatures from 90 to 60 days, required the reasons for the recall to be “factual,” and prohibited recalls in the first or last six months of an officeholder’s term, or first or last year, if the term is longer than 2 years. Officials can only face one recall election during their term.
A ‘winner take all’ election?
As complex and confusing as all this can be, the new law adds several unusual elements to this November’s recall election in Flint. Since there is only one election, whoever gets the most votes will be elected (or retained) as mayor of Flint for the rest of Weaver’s term.
With 18 candidates competing, the math could produce some surprising results, since the winner doesn’t need a majority of the vote, just the most votes….and that could be as little as six percent of the total. On one hand it might appear that just about anyone has a shot at winning. However, since Mayor Weaver is probably the best known name of the list, and since her opposition will be split up among 17 candidates, her chances to come in first would seem pretty good.
However it may not be that simple. Of Mayor Weaver’s many opponents, probably her major competition is Scott Kincaid, who has been on the city council for 32 years and ran for mayor once before–against Woodrow Stanley. But, given recent political history, predictions might be risky and it’s also conceivable that any of the other candidates could break through and surprise everyone. With 18 candidates anything is possible. As has been true for most of Flint’s mayoral elections over the last 30 years, the voting is likely to break down along racial lines.
As if this weren’t complicated enough, the new city charter takes effect at the beginning of next year, and will change several basic aspects of how the city is governed. However, the Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB) is still in place and might limit, delay or modify some elements of the new charter. How that plays out remains to be seen.
In addition, Flint voters will also be electing members of the city council in all nine wards, and will be voting on a proposal to reduce the Flint School Board to seven members, from the current nine.
It’s a significant time for Flint citizens to get informed and show up at the voting booth.
EVM political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.