Fizzling of Local Political Recall Drives Reflects Trend in State

Times Staff Writer

A series of recall drives against local elected officials in Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Moorpark has fizzled out, an outcome that political observers said is not surprising because it reflects a statewide trend.

Recall efforts in the three Ventura County cities failed earlier this fall because backers were unable to collect enough petition signatures from registered voters. However, in Moorpark, leaders of a failed recall drive against four school board members said they will persist in their efforts and are again circulating petitions.

Charles Adrian, a professor emeritus of political science at UC Riverside who specializes in municipal politics, said the failure of the three recall drives fits a statewide pattern.


“In recent years, there has been something of a revival of the recall, which surfaced for the first time in the United States in Los Angeles in the early 1900s,” Adrian said. “To be successful, which many of them aren’t, there must be a highly emotional issue with widespread appeal.

“If it’s just a small group with an ax to grind, they are not going to make much of an impression on people.”

Beyond Disinterest

But recall leaders blamed their failures on factors that go beyond public disinterest.

“Trying to get your message across to the public is one of the greatest obstacles anyone mounting a recall drive in a town with one local newspaper can face,” said Richard Booker, co-chairman of a committee to recall Thousand Oaks City Councilman Alex Fiore.

Booker said the recall drive against Fiore was organized in June by Thousand Oaks residents angry about a council decision to ignore petitions calling for a vote on the city’s Jungleland redevelopment project.

Council members Fiore, Lee Laxdal, Frank Schillo and Tony Lamb voted in March to ignore the petitions calling for a referendum on the $70-million project. In August, the same four councilmen voted in favor of the redevelopment project.

The Jungleland project would be a joint venture of the city’s redevelopment agency and a private developer to build a civic auditorium and office-hotel complex on 20 acres of land the city bought last year.

The council’s vote came after it was presented with two petitions, one calling for a referendum and the other supporting the project. Council members have said residents will have ample opportunity to comment on the proposed development during a series of public hearings.

Effort Called Off

Soon after Laxdal and Schillo were reelected in November, Booker announced that the recall effort was called off. Recall supporters had until mid-December to collect 7,852 signatures of registered voters, the number required in this instance to force a recall election.

With both incumbents reelected, it would have been “a futile exercise” to recall Fiore because the prevalent philosophy on the council would not change, Booker said.

Booker said last week that the failure of the recall drive “was mostly my fault because I kept procrastinating about organizing the campaign.

“Then the elections were coming up, and it was too late,” he said.

To be successful, recall campaigns require a sustained effort and often prove more difficult to mount than backers originally think, said Jonathan Steppee, a political science professor at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

Unlike other processes to remove elected officials, such as impeachment or judicial review, recall elections may be held even if incumbents have not violated laws, Steppee said. Recall supporters file notices with the appropriate municipality and have several months to collect signatures, usually about 20% to 25% of the registered voters, depending on the size of the city or county. If enough signatures are collected, an election is held.

Mismanagement Claims

In Camarillo, backers of a recall effort that accused three City Council members of mismanaging the city’s finances abandoned the drive in October after collecting 4,000 of the 5,200 signatures per council member necessary to recall Tom Martin, Sandi Bush and Charlotte Craven.

“Working with volunteers is really rough,” said Bob Garber, the committee’s chairman. “We just couldn’t get a reasonable commitment from people to collect signatures or pick up maps or do anything.”

Recall proponents launched the campaign in July after it was announced that former City Treasurer Donald Tarnow had lost $25 million from Camarillo’s treasury by making speculative investments that failed. He was fired in February for failing to disclose the losses. Recall supporters blamed the council for not adequately supervising Tarnow.

In Moorpark, supporters of a drive to oust four school board members, where 2,423 signatures per member were needed to force recall elections, fell short by 63 signatures, county election officials said in September.

The recall campaign, which targeted board President Lynda Kira, Vice President Carla Robertson, Patty Waters and Tom Baldwin, began in June after Moorpark Unified School District proposed selling 69-year-old Moorpark Memorial High School to developers.

Despite the board’s subsequent decision to merely lease the school, critics have refiled recall notices against the four board members, saying they are confident that they can collect enough signatures this time.

Persuasive Tool

“We feel that by filing for recall again, we were able to dissuade the board from taking certain actions, such as hiring the ex-superintendent as a consultant,” said Pam Castro, spokeswoman for the recall group.

Richard Tate, chairman of Friends of the Moorpark School Board, a parents group formed to oppose the recall effort, said he objects to “the use of recall as a political tool.”

“You don’t recall people just because you disagree with them--you campaign against them when they’re up for reelection,” Tate said.

But Steppee of Cal Lutheran University said the proliferation of recall campaigns on the municipal level in recent years is “a healthy development because it keeps politicians on their toes.”

“It may be overused a bit, but I’d rather run the risk of the public abusing politicians than have politicians abuse the public.”