Recall bill is bad business



A recall provision for Maine’s elected officials? No, thank you. Just as the legislature put the impeachment debate behind us, Rep. Justin Chenette submitted a bill to create a recall process. It is not a good idea.

Submitted after deadline and in the “emergency only” year, the bill will need the approval of the majority of the 10-member Legislative Council to be admitted. With the council evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, approval is unlikely.

On his website, Chenette says a recall process “is the best way to get the public to hold government more accountable without disrupting the important work taking place.” Sorry, but no.

Confrontations between the electorate and the elected are not uncommon. There is an existing provision in state law through which a municipal official may be recalled, but only for a crime committed against the municipality while the perpetrator is in office.

Many municipalities have opted to create their own recall provisions, often motivated by a group of disgruntled citizens who discover to their dismay that in their town, the opportunity does not yet exist.

As for legislators, terms are a mere two years long. Within those two years, the legislature convenes for less than six months in the first year, and less than four months in the second. The text of Chenette’s proposed bill is not available, but any recall process surely would consume a good amount of time, not to mention attract the rapt attention of the entire legislature and the media. That is time and attention that could be devoted to more pressing issues.

Maine’s constitution provides that “every person holding any civil office under this state, may be removed by impeachment, for misdemeanor in office …” (Article IX, Section 5). Further, either chamber of the legislature may “punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of 2/3, expel a member …” (Article IV, Part Three, Section 4). “Disorderly behavior” covers a multitude of sins, so the House and Senate have wide latitude here.

The rules of the House provide for enforcement of “order and decorum” (by the speaker), attendance by the members, and a response to a “breach of any of the rules and orders of the House.” The Senate has similar provisions and a Committee on Conduct and Ethics to which it can refer renegade senators. It would seem that most malfeasance, major and minor, is already anticipated.

What the constitution does not provide is a way for the public to oust a legislator. Chenette’s claim that this could happen “without disrupting the important work taking place” is disingenuous. Recall of a sitting legislator would be all-consuming and would serve to further polarize the legislative body in which it took place.

For a governor, terms are four years rather than just two. Still, our constitution provides us with the means to impeach a governor “for misdemeanor in office,” to address the “mental or physical disability of the governor,” both temporary and long-term, or to act when a governor is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of that office,” (e.g. through death or resignation).

In a radio interview last July, Governor Paul LePage said, “If the people of Maine … don’t want me, just ask me to leave. You don’t have to impeach me.” More recently – on MPBN last week – he had a change of heart, indicating he has no intention of resigning. Asked by a caller how he could be persuaded to resign, the governor said, “I’m here to the end of my term.”

Mostly, recall does not come up for the reasons cited in existing impeachment provisions. Instead, it is brandished as a weapon against an elected official who has annoyed some segment of voters by a position he or she holds or a vote he or she has cast. Because there always will be disagreements among the electorate about how their representatives should be voting, recall efforts could be never-ending.

In a bid to calm troubled waters, MPBN host Jennifer Rooks made a valiant effort to persuade the governor to cast recent meetings he held with Senator Justin Alfond as a thaw in relations. Nope, said the governor. Anyone can meet with him. “They just have to ask. I work, you know.”

This does not quite square with Senate President Mike Thibodeau’s contention that he sought a meeting with the governor for five months without success, but never mind. That was then.

So there has been no change in the tenor of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches? “No,” said the governor. Then he added: “The 127th Legislature died last year. You don’t start a session with impeachment and expect to have a good year.”

True. The opportunity to recall any elected official at any time would build hate and discontent, not exactly the ingredients recommended for a productive legislative session. Leave it alone, people, and give those elected room to work for a full term. You may disagree today but applaud them tomorrow. Soothing the savage beast is insufficient grounds to disrupt state government.

 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.
Jill Goldthwait

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