An elected official who steps out of the public's good graces in Rock Hall may find himself or herself on the ballot a lot sooner than the town's next regularly scheduled election. On Thursday, Oct. 10, the town council approved a charter amendment allowing for recall elections.
Rock Hall is the only town in Kent County with such a provision now, and the new law protects officials against frivolous attempts to unseat them outside of the election season.
According to the town's clerk/treasurer, Rock Hall has about 1,000 registered voters. A successful petition for recall requires 25 percent of them – about 250 – to sign it. That's a little less than half the number of ballots – 555 – cast in the 2011 election, when the mayor was elected. In this year's election, the top voter-getter, Brian Jones, received 184 votes.
While the bar appears to be set pretty high for a successful petition drive, it is lower than originally drafted by the town's attorney. Initially, a petitioner needed to collect signatures from 30 percent of registered Rock Hall voters.
Just how many voters there are posed a tricky question during deliberations, and could prove to be an issue in the future. Since a new voter can register at any time, the town wrestled with when, in the petition process, to lock in the number of registered voters. The petitioner should know just how many signatures he or she needs to obtain.
The town went with a very sensible solution. When a petition form is requested from the town office, the clerk-treasurer will give the most up-to-date figure for registered voters. A petitioner will then need to hit 25 percent of that number.
Petitions may be for only one official. You can't request a recall of multiple council members on the same form.
But say the petitioner hangs onto the form for a few weeks, or even a few months without actively canvassing for signatures. Should the town create an "expiration date" for such a form to ensure accuracy in the number of registered voters?
An interesting provision in the charter change calls for a public hearing to be held within 45 days of a petition's certification. This doesn't mean the town council gets to vote on whether or not to hold a recall. A successful petition drive requires a recall election be held.
The public hearing gives the aggrieved petitioners the opportunity to state their case against the official in question. It also gives the official the opportunity to respond to those concerns. Regardless of what is said, the town council must set a date for the election no less than 30 days and no more than 60 days after the hearing.
During the bill's drafting, some members of the council asked whether or not it should include a list of possible reasons for a recall, such as excessive absenteeism at town meetings, to ward off frivolous petitioners. Councilwoman Susan Francis gave the extreme example of someone simply not caring for how an official dresses.
The council was advised by the town's attorney not to include a list, and we agree with that. To start listing reasons, at the very least, gives the appearance that a recall may only be initiated for one or more of the given reasons. It opens the door to misinterpretation.
Also, as Town Attorney Charles "Chip" MacLeod rhetorically asked, where do you draw the line? What constitutes a valid reason, in the eyes of the council, and the public?
The public hearing provision acts as a failsafe in that respect. The reasons are to be given at the public hearing, and the voters will get to decide at the polls if those are good enough to remove someone from office.
To ensure clarity at the polls, the charter lists the ballot question for a recall. "Shall (name of elected official) continue in the office of (insert office name) of the Town of Rock Hall?" It's a simple yes or no question.
What's not so simple a question to answer is when we'll see the first petitions being circulated, and for whom the recall bell will toll.
It's good to see the council create an additional avenue for public participation in government, while also ensuring some form of protection against frivolous recall attempts. To us, it's not a matter of protecting the elected officials, but saving the town on unnecessary election expenses and the government from the additional distractions an unwarranted recall attempt creates.