Legislature eyes bill that would allow recall elected officials

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Spurred in part by public frustration at having no way to oust Gov. Paul LePage after a series of embarrassing comments, lawmakers are taking a look at a measure that would allow the recall of elected officials in Maine.

Its sponsor, Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said this week he wants “to give power back into the hands of the people.”

His proposal would allow people to gather signatures to force a special recall election when an official is accused of neglect of duty, misuse of office or incompetence. It would also apply if an elected leader turns to crime, obstructs voter-approved initiatives or violates ethics laws.

It would apply to town board members, mayors, legislators and the governor.

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“On the surface, it would be easy to view this bill as a direct response to the governor, but there is a reason why I include each level of government in this bill,” Chenette said. “This is about holding all of us accountable not just about one position or about one man.”

“In fact, by the time this would be in effect and in place, it wouldn’t really impact the current occupant of the Blaine House,” he told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

The Maine Municipal Association took a firm stand against the bill this week. It said town charters already govern recalls and that recalls require a lot of administrative work.

Besides, it said, “recalls are initiated as much to cause political and partisan mischief as they are to root out an incompetent or otherwise inappropriate elected official.”

Chenette, however, pointed out that 19 states already allow recalls of state officials and 29 for municipal leaders. The only one in New England, though, is Rhode Island.

Chenette said he weeded through the many law to pull out the best elements “that reflect our strong electoral system we have here in Maine.”

Under his proposal, a recall petition would have to collect the signatures of at least 15 percent of the voters in the last election for the position in question and require the party affiliation of signers be proportional to those who voted in that race.

“This is done to ensure it’s not a one-sided, partisan situation,” he said.

In addition, Chenette said the proposal would have the secretary of state’s office and the Maine Ethics Commission write the rules governing the process details and determining the eligibility of the grounds for a recall petition drive to get underway.

“l don’t want this abused. l don’t want a recall election held every year,” he said. “That’s not the objective.”

“The goal is to have a targeted approach in the rare instances where there is very little recourse for voters beyond waiting around until the next election,” Chenette said.

Last summer, after LePage made headlines for comments about race and drug dealers as well as expressing a desire to have a duel with a political rival, Chenette vowed to push the recall measure in response to the Republican opposition to a special legislative session “to hold the governor accountable.”

At the time, he said, “Let’s give the power to the people by providing the public an extra tool of governmental accountability, especially when other elected officials fail to hold each other and each branch of government to task.”

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