A few years ago, when Connie Bull told a friend that she and her husband were planning to move to Ramona, her friend’s response was: “Why would you want to live there? All they do up there is fight. Nobody ever wants to sit down and talk about things.”
They might not want to talk, but they certainly like to shake things up.
Ramona’s 13,000 inhabitants make up only one-half of 1% of the county’s population. Yet Ramonans have launched 30% of the county’s recall attempts to unseat local elected officials over the last 10 years, according to county registrar of voters’ records.
Recall, a legal and relatively inexpensive method of ousting an elected official, is a way of life in Ramona and an ever-present danger to the political lives of the five directors of the Ramona Municipal Water District--the town’s unofficial city council--and the five trustees of the Ramona Unified School District.
Not that Ramona actually recalls many officials. Since 1982, 23 people were the targets of recall campaigns. Of those, only one faced a vote. The official was recalled. But later, he was voted back into office.
Sometimes too few signatures were gathered to force an election. Frequently, the recall campaign was dropped. Sometimes the leaders of recall campaigns turn around and vote for the people they target. But the recall vote itself seems hardly the issue to its Ramona fans. It’s more of a belief in the recall form of government.
Recall campaigns work, they say. They get attention and change.
Their targets disagree.
Dr. Marcelo Rivera, a Ramona physician and a 10-year school board trustee, has been the target of three recall efforts.
None of the recall attempts against Rivera in 1982, 1985 and 1991 went to an election, a process that would have cost the already financially strapped school district about $47,000.
“I think the recall process is a valid method, which is being abused,” Rivera said after a recent recall effort was dropped against him and another school board member over the imposition of fares for school buses.
The recall process is correctly used against elected officials for malfeasance in office, a series of questionable actions against the public good or conduct unbecoming a public official, Rivera said.
“Nothing good will be accomplished if honest and dedicated elected representatives are recalled whenever someone disagrees with them on one issue,” Rivera said. He called the recently abandoned petition campaign to seek recall of him and fellow trustee Mike Mercurio “a perversion of the electoral process.”
Paul Jarrett, one of the leaders of the recall effort, disagreed. The recall was abandoned “because we accomplished what we set out to do. We proved that they didn’t need the bus fees to balance their current school budget, that they just wanted to put a little money in the bank. Now they’ve admitted that the district is solvent.”
Jarrett said the two school board members were targeted for recall because their terms had more than three years to run. The other two board members who voted for a $90-a- year bus fee for Ramona students, board president Arvie Degenfelder and trustee Tom Ferguson--"are up for reelection next year, and we will deal with them then,” Jarrett said.
Frank Thibault, orchestrater of two recall attempts against several members of the Ramona Municipal Water Board this year, is a typical recall advocate, unschooled in the legalities of the process but determined to prevail.
Armed with a brochure from the county registrar of voters, the San Diego Country Estates retiree attempted to start recall proceedings against three water board members--Lark Burkhart, Carolyn Toth and Board Chairman Kenneth Thompson.
“I learned the ropes through trial and error,” Thibault said. “At one point I had to go back down to the registrar’s office five different times before it was all in order, every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed.”
From Ramona, the registrar’s office is a 75-mile round trip.
On his first attempt this year, Thibault missed a deadline, and his recall efforts were ruled invalid by the registrar of voters in July. He started all over again, beginning the recall process against Toth and Thompson. He deleted Burkhart from his efforts because “there was not sufficient interest in her district,” Thibault said.
Because he is not a resident in either Toth’s or Thompson’s water board division, Thibault is not allowed to participate in the signature gathering on recall petitions against them. But that hardly stops him.
He has submitted more than 800 signatures gathered by others for Toth’s recall. Only about 500 of the signatures must be validated to force a recall election. Thompson recall petitions are still being circulated, he said. They will be submitted later this month for validation.
“That means an election, by January at the latest, if sufficient signatures are valid,” Thibault said. “And I’m sure there are enough.”
“Here we go again” was the headline on an editorial in the Ramona Sentinel about the recall effort against Toth, who had been in office only about seven months when Thibault’s second recall effort was begun.
Recall proponents argued that Toth had campaigned on a platform of “controlled spending” and “reduced budget and management,” then, after her election, had “joined a coalition to raise rates and fees, damaging the community financially, to the brink of bankruptcy.”
Thompson was charged in the recall petition statements with “false and misleading campaign promises,” “conduct unbecoming a public servant,” such as insulting members of the audience during water board meetings, and “rapidly moving Ramona to the brink of bankruptcy.”
Both water board directors denied the charges in rebuttal statements and cited the reasons for their actions in raising water rates and other fees in the multi-purpose district, which controls the area’s water, sewer, fire protection, paramedic services and parks.
Sam Mitchell, who barely missed election to the water board by a handful of votes in 1988, sees the recall as a custom-made vehicle for his political aims.
He plans to file for Thompson’s seat on the recall ballot.
Recall campaigns “are difficult things to do,” in Mitchell’s opinion.
“There’s a lot of sidewalk-beating and door-pounding involved,” he said. “But you have to show some people in office that they do not rule by divine right, that they cannot do as they please and the voters be damned.”
William W. Clark is Ramona’s one recall fatality. In 1986, he was successfully recalled from his Division 1 seat on the water board by 14 votes.
Undaunted, he returned to his Division 1 water board post after the 1988 election, which voted him in by a healthy margin.
Has that soured Clark on recalls? Not at all.
“Recalls are the only leverage that average citizens have to get rid of a public official who is not carrying out his campaign promises,” he said.
A decade ago, Ramona High School coach Bill Tamburrino led a recall campaign aimed at three Ramona school board members who favored drastic cuts in the district’s athletic budget.
The petitions were never filed with the registrar of voters office, and no recall election was ever held, but the issue that spurred Tamburrino to attempt to oust his bosses was resolved in his favor. The athletic budget cuts were restored.
“The one great lesson I learned about recalls is that they are almost impossible to win. In fact, nobody wins,” Tamburrino commented a decade later on his efforts to oust his elected “bosses.”
“The wounds heal but the scars remain,” he said. “My ego would like me to say that I won that fight. But, I think, it probably would have happened anyway,” Tamburrino said.
As it happens, one of the targets in the most recent school board recall was Dr. Rivera, who was also a target in Tamburrino’s 1982 recall attempt.
And Tamburrino voted for Rivera in the most recent board election, even though they do not see eye-to-eye on some educational issues.
But that hasn’t deterred Tamburrino from the prospect of future recall campaigns if the board similarly thwarts him.
“I think that I’d do the same thing I did then,” he said.