WESTBROOK — City councilors said Monday that they support adding a provision to the city’s charter that would enable voters to recall elected officials. They just don’t want to make it too easy to do.
They also want input from the public before deciding the details of the provision, while recognizing there’s not much time for that if they want to hold a referendum Nov. 4 on the charter change.
“I want a recall, but we’ve got to do it right,” said Councilor Victor Chau.
The City Council must decide by its Sept. 15 meeting whether to send the question to voters in November. The council will hold a public hearing on Sept. 8.
The council began considering adopting a process to recall elected officials at the request of Ray Richardson, a Westbrook resident and local talk radio host, who asked for it at a council meeting in April after School Committee member Suzanne Joyce did not heed his call for her to resign.
Joyce was one of the central figures in a controversy over the overturned suspensions of about 30 student-athletes, including her son, who attended an underage drinking party last fall.
An investigation into the incident revealed that Joyce had called and visited the office of Superintendent Marc Gousse to discuss her son’s discipline and that Gousse sat in a nearby office when the high school principal heard her son’s appeal, but didn’t do that for any other hearings.
At the meeting in April, the council referred Richardson’s request to its Committee of the Whole, which discussed it for the first time Monday.
“I’m not sure who is ultimately responsible for that, but it is disappointing that the committee was not convened sooner,” Councilor Michael Foley said.
The proposed provision presented to the committee would require five registered voters to initiate a petition and the signatures of 10 percent of voters from the elected official’s ward, or the entire city for an at-large official, to force a recall election.
“The bar is set pretty low,” said Chau, noting that Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough require a higher percentage of voters to petition for a recall.
City Solicitor Natalie Burns, who drafted the provision, said some municipalities require more signatures, while others, including Portland, require fewer. The one proposed is “middle of the road” and mirrors Westbrook’s requirements for a citizens initiative to get on the ballot, she said.
Chau proposed raising the requirement to 25 voters to initiate the petition and signatures from 25 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election to get a recall on the ballot – an amendment the majority of the council favored.
Council President Brendan Rielly said he wants to make sure the provision doesn’t allow for the city to be in “perpetual recall” with special elections every month.
“Elections are important and they matter,” he said. “We want it to be used when something serious happens.”
As written, the provision would apply to any elected official – city councilors, school board members and the mayor – with more than a year left in office. Petitions would have to be certified by the city clerk by Nov. 30 of the year before the end of the official’s term.