Crime and Punishment
A special "recall" election is not the only means by which an elected official can be expelled from office in the District.
If the official is jailed for a felony, he or she is removed by law.
Note that the official must be jailed. An elected official convicted of a felony but not sent to prison is free to continue in his or her job.
It is easy to imagine a scenario where a Council member is convicted of a felony for defrauding the city of several hundred thousand dollars for the purpose of funding personal extravagances. And it is easy to imagine the same Council member cutting a deal with the Feds that does not require a prison sentence. Right, we can all imagine that. And much to any sane person’s horror, that Council member would be allowed to serve out his term and even seek reelection.
On Wednesday the D.C. Council held a roundtable discussion on comprehensive ethics reform. Politicians, government officials, candidates, activists and others offered their opinions of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability Establishment and Comprehensive Ethics Reform Amendment Act of 2011. Issues such as campaign contribution bundling, constituent services slush funds, a new ethics board, conflicts of interest, making the Council a full-time job and term limits were topics for debate. Amending the recall process is also under consideration, but at no point today did I hear anyone calling for a mechanism the Council could itself employ to remove a reprobate from office.
Plenty of legislative bodies have rules in place for expelling a member. Typically a super-majority is required. This is how it works in Washington State: "Each house may determine the rules of its own proceedings, punish for contempt and disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all the members elected, expel a member."
In Pennsylvania, "Both Houses of the General Assembly can expel a member with a two-thirds vote. Anyone expelled for corruption can never run again for election to either house."
Did you get that? "Can never run again for election." Here in the District an official recalled by voters can be a candidate in the special election to fill the vacancy created by the recall. Say what? Round and round we go.
Ethics reform will not be comprehensive until the D.C. Council creates a mechanism for expelling members who break laws or bring shame on the institution and our city.
We can plug every loophole, require Council members to work fulltime, ban corporate money from campaigns and implement strong transparency policies to shed light on potential conflicts of interest, but some people will always game the system. Maybe if elected officials knew they could lose their coveted jobs they would think twice.
Laws governing citizen initiated recall efforts could use some reform, too.
In order to appear on the ballot to run as a Ward council member, candidates without a party affiliation must gather 500 signatures from registered voters. Democrats are required to collect 250 signatures; Republicans can qualify with as few as 14.
A Democrat running citywide needs 2,000 signatures, a Republican 296 and independents 3,000.
Removing an elected official from office requires many more signatures. A recall petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of voters citywide or in a ward.
Based on numbers available from the Board of Elections, in order to call a special election to remove an elected official from citywide office the signatures of 45,322 registered voters are required. Elected officials at the Ward level can be subject to recall with between 4,600 and 6,400 signatures.
These thresholds, in particular the citywide numbers, are absurdly high. They should be lowered.
It should be possible to initiate a citywide recall election with 20,000 signatures. For a bit of perspective consider this: 46,967 voters, only 10.3 percent of the electorate, participated in the April 2011 special election.
Ward officials should be subject to a recall election if 2,500 voters consent.
And, of course, the recalled official must be prohibited from being a candidate in the special election to fill the office from which he or she was removed. That's a no-brainer if there ever was one.
Chuck Thies hosts the "D.C. Politics" show Thursday mornings at 11:00 am on WPFW 89.3 FM, streaming online at wpfw.org.