Effort to remove DA Price prompts smart recall rule changes

Sometimes it takes a highly charged political event to prompt elected officials to do the right thing.

Such is the case in Alameda County, where the Board of Supervisors is considering placing on the March ballot a charter change that would revamp the process for recalling elected officials.

The move has prompted accusations that it’s driven by an attempt to undermine the recall of the county’s controversial new district attorney, Pamela Price. Whatever the motivation, the recall has highlighted that the recall process under the county charter for petition signature-gathering and subsequent countywide balloting is a mess.

It’s unfortunate that the proposed change comes in the middle of the signature-gathering effort for the recall. But, given the timing, it’s uncertain whether the new rules would apply to the current recall effort.

That said, the proposed charter change, with a key clarification, deserves support of the Board of Supervisors and voters countywide.

To their credit, rather than trying to rewrite the charter, the proposed change would simply command the county to follow state rules that apply to counties without their own charters. That makes sense and should eliminate any claims that supervisors are trying to impose a politically driven structure unique to Alameda County.

According to County Counsel Donna Ziegler, of the 14 counties in the state that have their own charter, three have no recall provisions of their own, which means they automatically follow state law, and the rest refer to and incorporate state law to govern their recalls.

Alameda County is the outlier, the only charter county with recall provisions that completely deviate from state law.

The result is that, for recalls, the county relies on nearly century-old charter provisions, some of which are unconstitutional under subsequent court rulings. Other provisions are simply not practical given the current size of the county.

For example, the current county charter allows election officials only 10 days to verify probably more than 100,000 recall petition signatures. The 10-day timeframe might have made sense when the county was much smaller a century ago and the signature requirement was consequently far less. But it’s ridiculous today.

The current charter requires a recall election to take place within 30-45 days of the county Board of Supervisors calling the election. Given the county size, with more than 900,000 voters, that’s an unrealistic timeframe to take care of all the ballot and polling preparations.

Opponents, led by attorney Jason Bezis and the Alameda County Taxpayers’ Association, raise three objections to the proposed charter change.

First, they note that the change would increase the number of valid signatures needed to qualify a recall. That’s true. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Recalls should be reserved for truly egregious behavior, not merely political unhappiness with an elected official.

Moreover, the amount of the increase — from 15% of the vote cast within the county for governor at the last election to 10% of all registered voters — while not insignificant, is not unreasonable. For a countywide election, that would increase the number of signatures needed from about 73,000 to 92,000.

Second, the change would give the county Board of Supervisors the power to appoint a temporary successor who would have to subsequently stand for election, rather than the replacement being chosen in the recall election. While neither system is perfect, we have seen with statewide gubernatorial recalls the mischief and silliness that ensues when the question of recall and replacement are on the same ballot.

Third, Bezis argues the wording of the proposed ballot measure would eliminate the current charter provision that enables voters to recall “appointive” county officials, such as the county administrator, public works director, elections chief or county counsel.

Bezis seems to be correct that the ballot measure wording would eliminate that provision. That’s because the key word in the measure, referring to “appointed” county officers, doesn’t match the term used in the current county charter. The ballot measure would likely be interpreted to only include people appointed to elective office vacancies.