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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Council can make recall a possibility

The Spokesman-Review

Removing an elected mayor from office shouldn’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be impossible either. Under the Spokane City Charter, the task is close enough to the latter to justify the City Council’s current interest in a corrective amendment.

As a practical matter, this shouldn’t be seen as a strategy to oust Mayor Jim West. When and if the Council comes up with a proposed amendment, it would have to go to the voters in the fall.

If they passed it, it presumably would still necessitate some deliberative process before removal could occur. If West is still in office by the time such events have unfolded, it’s questionable whether the political will to press the matter would be in place.

Nevertheless, we have West’s political troubles to thank for revealing the charter deficiency that affords him, or any mayor, an effective shield from accountability when serious questions arise.

Under the strong-mayor system of city government, only a citizen-filed petition, signed by a suitable number of voters, can put a mayoral recall to a public vote.

Spokane resident Shannon Sullivan is finding out just how imposing the procedure is.

She tried to file one petition, only to have it rejected over a paperwork error. She made revisions, which the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s office cleared to go before a Superior Court judge.

But when Sullivan showed up in court on Wednesday, the mayor’s lawyers greeted her with a 14-page memo challenging the adequacy of her petition.

Now she’s scheduled to reappear before a visiting judge on Monday to respond to the memo and find out if her recall effort can proceed.

If the judge says OK, Sullivan then will have 180 days to collect 12,567 voters’ signatures. And that’s just to put the question on the ballot.

As Sullivan is discovering, the recall landscape is forested with challenges both legal and logistical. The limited structure available to citizens upset with any mayor’s conduct poses obstacles of cost and expertise that could easily frustrate honest citizens with limited resources.

If Sullivan were trying to put a different question on the ballot — fluoridation, for example — the City Council could save her the trouble and put the measure to a public vote. Not so with a mayor recall, however.

Some rectification is in order. Still, Spokane voters have blessed the strong-mayor structure twice, and the City Council should respect the separation of powers they have endorsed.

A defensible recall measure should specify the threshold conditions necessary to initiate the process. It should spell out the elements of malfeasance, misfeasance or non-feasance and require that they be submitted to appropriate legal review. It would be reasonable to require a supermajority of five council votes to take action, and that action should be limited to putting the question on the ballot.

Removing a mayor who’s been elected by the voters should be up to the voters. But Council members are elected officials, too, and in their capacity as the public’s representatives, they should be able to make a complicated process more efficient.

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