A push to get Alaska’s Legislature to tighten up the law for recalling elected municipal officials made progress last week. The Alaska Municipal League passed a resolution asking lawmakers to revisit the grounds for recalling municipal officials. This comes after several recall efforts have sprung up around the state, one of which landed in court.
Municipal officials can be recalled for misconduct in office, incompetence or failure to perform their duties. When a citizen thinks a municipal official’s actions fall under any of those categories, they can file for a petition to recall them. If the city clerk decides the allegations would be cause for recall, if they were true, a recall election can move forward.
But the state statute doesn’t define in legal terms what the threshold for each recallable offense is, and some say that’s a problem.
Homer City Council member Donna Aderhold was one of three council members to face a recall election this summer, and crafted the resolution approved at the Municipal League’s conference last week.
“Just in the little bit of work that I’ve done, one of the issues is that each municipality is evaluating these recall petition applications alone, without the benefit of the collective understanding of how to evaluate the petition or the petition applications in terms of the language in the petition,” Aderhold explained.
The Homer City Council approved sending the resolution to the Municipal League in August and it also approved a companion resolution of its own.
Both measures come after the city fought a court battle against the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the three council members, over the recall petition in Homer being approved.
Petitioners argued that three council members committed misconduct in office after sponsoring and crafting two resolutions regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline and inclusivity for minority populations. The ACLU argued the resolutions did not constitute misconduct.
Council member Heath Smith sponsored both resolutions asking the Legislature to revisit the matter and presented the measure at the Municipal League conference.
Smith said recall efforts will likely continue winding up in court if the Legislature doesn’t clear up the statute.
“I think if the Legislature looks at it, it’s going to be fairly easy one way or another to kind of define it in a more succinct way,” he said. “So, when somebody looks at what’s being brought forward, it’s very easy to make a determination, and we don’t have to get tied up in courts to give the voters what they’re asking for.”
Smith said he doesn’t necessarily want the Legislature to make it more difficult for recall efforts to move forward, but said he just wants clarity.
“I mean there’s two ways to look at it. It’s whether they define it in a sense to where they clearly lay out what constitutes very specifically a violation, or they can basically say the voter is educated enough to decide what that is,” Smith added.
Aderhold said she would like the Legislature to narrow the statute’s scope.
A handful of recall efforts have sprung up around the state in recent months. Borough assembly members survived a recall in Haines this summer and a petition was denied in Petersburg. One recall effort in Cordova was successful in ousting a city council member earlier this month and a new petition is currently circulating for Unalaska’s mayor.
Aderhold said as more municipalities deal with the issue across the state, the more clear guidance is needed.
“By having a better definition, I believe it will clarify for municipalities, for elected officials and for the public, what is the process and what are the standards, what is a recallable offense,” Aderhold said.
This isn’t the first time the Legislature has been asked to revisit the statute. The Alaska Supreme Court asked lawmakers to clear up the law in a 1984 court battle involving the Bering Strait School District.
The Municipal League will lobby the Legislature on the issue during the next legislative session, but it’s unclear whether it will take on the matter as it grapples with the state’s fiscal issues.