A Genesee Co. judge has ruled that a recall effort against embattled Flint Mayor Karen Weaver can go forward, but petitioners will find they have a much harder task ahead of them than they did in efforts to recall former mayors Woodrow Stanley and Don Williamson.
The reason: The state Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder changed the law in 2012 to make it tougher to oust an officeholder even if recall organizers gain sufficient signatures to put the incumbent’s name on the ballot.
Woodrow Stanley was recalled in 2002 and one of his successors, Don Williamson, almost certainly would have been had he not resigned on the eve of an election to recall him in 2009. But those were recalls operating under a century-old Michigan statute in which the official stood on the ballot alone, with the equivalent of a “scarlet letter” pinned on his or her chest, with the voter being given two choices — “Yes” (for ouster) or “No” (let him or her remain in office). The voter was provided with no alternative opponent with whom to compare the incumbent. The election was comparable to a ‘morality play’ in which the incumbent was subject to public humiliation.
As a result, Michigan led all of Western Civilization in the number of elected officials facing recall elections. A 2012 Citizens Research Council report found that 457 state and local officials in Michigan faced recalls between 2000 and 2011 — far more than any other state.The peak was in 2006 when 87 officials in Michigan were subjected to recall votes. Most of the recall elections were at the township level (64.6%).
The average number of elected officials facing recall elections each year between 2000 and 2011 was approximately 38 in Michigan; 18 in runner-up California; and 10 in third-place Arizona. From January through June of 2012, near the end of the tenure of the old law, 17 officials faced recall. By contrast, under the new law during the same six-month period in 2013, only three officials faced recall. The drop-off from old law to new has stayed pretty much the same ever since.
Key changes made in Michigan’s recall in 2012 were as follows:
— The time to collect signatures was shortened from 90 days to 60 days, the same period as Wisconsin and six other states.
— Officials subject to recall will have an opponent instead of being subject to a Yes or No vote. The candidate with the highest number of votes in the recall election wins that office for the balance of the term.
— In non-partisan local elections (like Flint), the name of the official who is the recall target will automatically be placed on the ballot. Other qualifying candidates compete against the official. The candidate with the highest number of votes wins the office for the balance of the term.
— Local officials like Weaver cannot have recall petitions filed against them in the first year or last year of their terms of office. In Weaver’s case, this is irrelevant because she’s now in her second year in office and the new law states that if an official like Weaver withstands this recall she cannot face another one during her term of office.
Similar but slightly different criteria govern recall elections of officials at the state level and in partisan elections at the local level.
Practically speaking, what this means is that Weaver has to win ONLY A PLURALITY if she faces more than one opponent. The more candidates file against her, theoretically the better her chances are of winning. While her opponents split the ‘opposition’ vote, she needs only to make sure her core supporters turn out to vote. Even if, say, three or four opponents amass 60% or more of the vote combined, unless one of them gets more votes than Weaver, she will survive.
The current effort to recall Weaver has been spearheaded by Flint resident Arthur Woodson, who also had experience in the recall efforts against Stanley and Williamson. The ostensible reason for the recall written on the petition filed by Woodson is the effort by Weaver last September to jettison the city’s waste collector, Republic Services, in favor of Rizzo Environmental Services. The city council blocked Weaver’s move, and the mayor and councilpersons hurled insults at one another until Rizzo became embroiled in a public corruption investigation in metro Detroit. Weaver backtracked and settled with the council to allow Republic to continue to pick up Flint’s trash.
Weaver filed an appeal of the recall language approved by a three-member county election commission, but she lost when Circuit Judge Geoffrey Neithercut ruled Monday that the language was valid. Woodson will now have to collect nearly 5,800 signatures in order for the recall language to be placed on the ballot, probably in either August or November.
Needless to say, there are other reasons why the city’s voters may be dissatisfied with Weaver’s performance other than the Rizzo embarrassment. These would include 1) Weaver’s failure to pay her water bills while the city was threatening to shut off water to property owners who hadn’t ponied up for the same transgression; 2) Charges by Concerned Pastors for Social Action that city government is “fractured and dysfunctional at best;” 3) Lawsuits filed against Weaver by disgruntled former employees whom she has fired; and 4) Weaver’s most recent announcement that she supports Flint remaining with the Great Lakes (Detroit) Water Authority for the next three decades instead of using the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, to which Flint is indebted for tens of millions of dollars whether it uses KWA water or not.
Weaver and her supporters have taken to calling her “Dr. Weaver” because she has a PhD in clinical psychology. That was the basis on which, on March 12, Weaver asked for a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against Woodson because, she said, she was “fearful for her life” due to Woodson’s “mental health issues and depression.” Genesee Circuit Judge Joseph Farah denied Weaver’s PPO request.
In sum, the mayor may seem like an inviting target, but she still holds most of the cards against those trying to get rid of her, for all the reasons cited above.