Commentary: Recall the Flint City Council? But at what cost?

By Paul Rozycki

Within the last year, all but one elected Flint City Council member has faced the possibility of a recall.

The late Councilman Eric Mays (Ward 1) saw two recall petitions approved for circulation before he died in February, Council President Ladel Lewis (Ward 2) is currently navigating a fourth recall attempt in a little over six months, and Councilmembers Quincy Murphy (Ward 3), Judy Priestley (Ward 4), Jerri Winfrey-Carter (Ward 5), former Council President Allie Herkenroder (Ward 7), Dennis Pfeiffer (Ward 8) and Eva Worthing (Ward 9) have all had at least one petition attempt filed against them. 

So far, only a petition to recall Worthing has proven successful. The 9th Ward councilwoman decided not to run to keep her seat, so Page Brousseau, Kathryn Irwin, and Jonathan Jarrett are vying for the position in a recall election on May 7. (East Village Magazine’s interviews with those candidates can be found here.) 

There are multiple reasons why the past year’s many city council recall attempts were not successful. Herkenroder resigned from her post before petition signatures were returned, for example, while others failed due to an insufficient number of valid signatures or a petitioner’s reason for the recall not being deemed “clear and factual” by the Genesee County Election Commission.

Ultimately though, whoever is or isn’t actually removed from office, the process of recalling the majority of Flint City Council presents a significant problem and expense for local officials, local governments, and taxpayers. 

The costs and challenges of many recalls

Recall elections are under the direction of the Genesee County Clerk’s office and the Genesee County Election Commission, composed of county Clerk/Registrar Domonique Clemons, county Probate Judge Jenny Barkey, and county Treasurer Deb Cherry. 

They must meet to approve the initial language of the recall petitions, along with properly posting those outcomes. From there, signatures must be gathered and verified, elections must be scheduled and ballots prepared.

That’s not to mention the work of City of Flint’s Clerk Office Election Division, which aids in signature verification, manages candidate applications, and conducts the city’s elections, as well.

Clearly, it takes a great deal of time and effort on the part of local officials to manage recalls, and local governments (and thereby taxpayers) bear the cost.

“The recall process is a very involved process and is very intensive. While it requires a lot of labor and passion for any resident to go through the recall process, it is also extremely timely and costly for municipal government,” Clemons told East Village Magazine in an email. “The rise in recall attempts has required my staff to put in additional hours and overtime to meet our deadlines for the recalls, on top of the hundreds of process deadlines we also have for a major election year such as 2024. A local recall (City of Flint for example) requires efforts of both my office and the [Flint] city clerk…Between myself, my staff, our GIS [Geographic Information Systems] Department, and corporate counsel it is easy to estimate between an additional 30-60 hours is needed for each recall submitted (not counting any city time).”

Clemons also noted all of that time doesn’t account for the additional hours then required to properly notice an approved recall, program and print ballots, and conduct the election when a recall is approved.

“Each recall is also costing the community (through tax dollars) thousands of dollars,” Clemons summarized. “The recall process is an incredibly timely and costly process for election offices, who must meet the requirements of recalls along with an already grueling schedule, all at the taxpayers’ expense.”

What limits recalls?

It’s a maxim that in a democratic nation we should have the right to elect our government officials. Nationwide we elect over 500,000 individuals to office from the president of the United States to local school board members and township clerks, and perhaps a few dog-catchers here and there. That right is the core of a democratic society. But how far should that extend? Should the voters also have the right to remove any elected official, for any reason, and if so, when and how should it be done? What limits should there be?

Clearly, a recall may be justified if an official is convicted of a serious crime or is unable or unwilling to perform the basic duties of their job. But it should not be used simply because one official disagrees with another, belongs to a different party, or votes against you.

Some 39 states allow for a recall of local officials, and 19 have provisions to recall state level officials. In a dozen states recalls are allowed for only a few specified reasons, like:. 

In Michigan the only requirement is that the reasons for the recall must be “clear and factual.” In Michigan all state and local officials are subject to a recall except judges. 

Changes in Michigan’s recall law

Recalls in Michigan used to be easier and more common. 

Before a change in the law a little over a decade ago, it seemed like you couldn’t go a month in Genesee County without someone trying to recall a local official for one reason or another — or perhaps no real reason at all, except that they didn’t like the individual. 

To reduce the number of recalls the state tightened the rules for recalls in 2012.

Depending on the office, recalls couldn’t take place at the very beginning or end of one’s term of office. The timeline for collecting signatures was reduced from 90 to 60 days, and the reasons for the recall must be deemed both “clear and factual.” Further, recall petitions needed to be signed by voters equal to 25% of those who voted for governor in that district. 

In general the rules worked, and the number of recalls dropped significantly. But not for the Flint City Council. 

Yet all these Flint recalls do place a burden on local election officials who are already trying to adjust to the expanded election options for this year. So what should be done?

A few possible solutions 

On one hand, Michigan could get rid of recalls altogether. There are eleven states that don’t allow them, but certainly there are cases where an officeholder is clearly unable or unwilling to perform his or her basic duties where a recall would be justified.

A second solution would be to tighten up the reasons for a recall.

Instead of simply saying the reasons for a recall must be “clear and factual,” the law might specify more particular, narrowly defined cases where a recall is an option, such as in instances of neglect of duty or criminal conviction. About a dozen states, including Georgia, Florida, Kansas, Montana and Minnesota, apply these limits to their recalls. 

Yet, while those are both possible options, perhaps the real solution doesn’t rest with the details of a recall law but in our attitudes and those of our officeholders. 

The real solution would be to recognize that democracy works best when people of differing opinions can disagree, do so in a civil way, and still work together to reach some sensible solutions. 

What we are seeing with the Flint City Council recalls is a reflection of the deep partisan division nationwide, where the other side is not only different but is considered “the enemy.” The current U.S. Congress is an obvious example. 

Certainly there may be times when a recall is justified, but recalling someone because they missed a meeting, said something you didn’t like, or voted the wrong way on a bill is not the way to get things done and not the way to keep democracy functioning. The endless recalls also undermine the basic trust in all governmental institutions.  

I often think that our elected officials could learn something from most high school and college athletic teams. After the big game is done, no matter how hard they tackled, blocked, or fouled each other, both the winning and the losing teams line up and shake hands with each other before they retreat to the locker room. After all, they realize there is another game next week, or next season. 

Maybe we should realize that there is another regular election next month or next year as well, and that recalls should be the rare exception — not the standard way of getting back at those who disagree with you. 

Editor’s Note: Since East Village Magazine originally published this article in its April 2024 issue, Councilman Pfeiffer had two more recall petitions filed against him. The Genesee County Election Commission hearing to determine whether either petition moves forward will take place on April 18, 2024.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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