Las Vegas Sun

August 25, 2019

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Jon Ralston:

Let’s recall the recalls

Recallmania is sweeping Southern Nevada, yet I find myself less than manic.

The continual effort to recall Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross and the incipient move to oust North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck before her time have little in common except they are unwarranted. But in this age of Facebook and Twitter, combined with incensed folks in a shattered economy, it’s not that surprising frustration leads to anger leads to (no, “Star Wars” geeks, this is not a Yoda reference) precipitous attempts such as these.

I come not to praise Ross or Buck, but to bury the notion of recalls without proper foundation. Indeed, no one was more scathing about Ross when he thought it was kosher to concurrently be a union boss and city councilman — a blatantly unethical conflict of interest. And, as I have written, Buck’s involvement in Councilman Wade Wagner’s campaign was remarkably heavy-handed and her lamentation of Richard Cherchio’s efforts to reverse a controversial one-vote loss as taking “an emotional toll” on the city is mock-ready.

But those are not even the reasons being used to try to recall Buck and Ross. Those are significantly lamer.

The Toss Ross folks, whose latest effort fizzled and were aided by a car dealer who didn’t get his way, claim he took a pay raise after promising he would not. Well. Perhaps a recall is too meek; let us hang him for not being a politician of his word.

The newly formed Buck recall group has a list of grievances, including that Her Honor voted to close recreation centers (the horror!) and is somehow responsible for Assembly Speaker John Oceguera taking a partial salary from the city’s fire department as a lawmaker. They can’t be serious. Ah, but they are.

The issue, though, is not really about Buck or Ross, neither of who is likely to be voted into the Southern Nevada Elected Officials Hall of Fame (a rather vacant place, I acknowledge). It’s the abuse of a process erected to redress serious grievances warranting a truncation of an elected official’s term, a legitimate use of the petitioning process to short-circuit a politician who has committed misfeasance or malfeasance in office.

Instead, recalls generally are initiated against state officials by those driven by ideology to erase an opponent — hello, Wisconsin — or against local politicians by those upset with zoning matters or aggrieved by more personal affronts.

This is a subversion of the very tenets of the republic and brings a lack of seriousness to the system that could be insidious and damaging. Long after Buck and Ross have been recalled or retired, the principle will endure.

No one put it better than Troy Senik, a former Bush speechwriter, in a polemic inspired by the Wisconsin recalls but one that has broad applicability:

“For all the marvels produced by ancient Greece, one of the lessons of its system of relatively uninhibited democracy was that allowing popular passions to win the day eviscerated the capacity of lawmakers to act in the long-term interest of the public … with more time for both reflection and empirical observation, judgment may be rendered. It need not be merciful, but it should at least be deliberate.”

That is why recalls are so difficult. And they should be.

Nevada’s recall parameters are fairly liberal. The Constitution says any public officer is subject to recall after six months in office, with advocates of ouster by law forced to collect signatures from 25 percent of those who voted in the last election in 60 days. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, those strictures are hardly extreme, although some states allow longer signatures-gathering periods. (See the NCSL-compiled facts here.)

An argument could be made that Ross deserved to be recalled for accepting a union organization stewardship while he was an elected official. That was fairly outrageous. But because he went back on a promise and because some car dealer is upset, he should be defenestrated before his term expires? Please.

As for Buck, her city is going bankrupt and she will have to answer for any responsibility she has. But because she voted to close some recreation centers, she should be cashiered? I don’t think so.

As Senik intimated, passions should cool, people should cogitate and organizers should … organize. If folks are not satisfied with the performance of Buck, Ross or any other local official, take your time, find a good candidate and try to get some funding.

That’s how the system is supposed to work, even if it is made more difficult by those who want to clutch onto their elected posts by passing laws to crush opposition. But difficult does not mean impossible. And by trying to recall folks before their time, these rabble-rousers and moneyed opportunities are subverting the system they claim to cherish.

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