WESTBROOK – City officials say a nascent effort in Westbrook to establish a process to recall elected officials would take time, but if successful, could possibly appear on a November ballot.
According to City Clerk Lynda Adams, any recall ordinance would require an amendment to the City Charter, which is a lengthy process.
In response to controversy swirling in Westbrook centered on the high school code of conduct, lifting of student suspensions and the resignation of the athletic director, Westbrook radio talk show host Ray Richardson has called for the resignation of School Committee member Suzanne Joyce, and at a recent City Council meeting, asked the city to initiate a process to recall elected officials.
A report released in February by Biddeford arbitrator John Alfano stated that an unnamed school board member, whose son was one of several members of the football team suspended, made calls to administration to discuss his discipline, and had “the appearance of special treatment” because Principal Jon Ross asked Superintendent Marc Gousse to be nearby during his appeal hearing. The suspensions of all the athletes involved in a weekend party where alcohol was served were subsequently lifted.
“I believe based on the Alfano report, which is the official school recount of the events, that she should step down,” Richardson said. “That’s my opinion, and if she doesn’t resign and we go to recall, she gets to make a case of why I’m wrong.”
Last week, Joyce said she has been unfairly targeted and said she wished the report provided more clarity instead of causing readers to interpret it in various ways. Joyce also made emotional comments following last Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, stating, “I never got involved to benefit personally. The community comes before my children, and I remain dedicated to the school board.”
This week, Richardson said there are examples of communities all over the state that have recall provisions, and that Westbrook could simply adapt a version to the charter.
“Every community ought to have a provision like this,” Richardson said Tuesday. “It’s not something that should be done frivolously or from a personal standpoint.”
Last year in Old Orchard Beach, two simultaneous recall efforts looked to oust all seven town councilors. However, the Old Orchard Beach charter already had a recall process in place, and the two different recall committees were able to collect enough signatures to force the election under the town charter.
Richardson also said a recall effort would work both ways.
“To recall someone, you have to make a case that they should be recalled,” he said. “But it also gives the elected official an opportunity to make a case as to why they should not be recalled.”
Any charter amendment, in this case the addition of a recall provision, must first be approved by the City Council and then head to a citywide referendum for approval.
Adams said Tuesday that she and City Attorney Natalie Burns believe that, upon voter approval, a recall petition process would be similar to the procedure currently used for citizen initiative petitions, which are covered in Chapter 8 of the Westbrook Code of Ordinances.
A petitioner’s committee of five or more qualified city voters would have 30 calendar days to circulate a petition.
“If they have the required number of signatures, making the petition valid, then it would be sent to the City Council to set a public hearing, which must be held within 21 days thereafter,” Adams said. “At the council meeting following the public hearing, the council will set the date for the special election.”
Adams said the special election can be held in conjunction with another already scheduled election if it is within four months, but if it is not, then the city would need to hold a special election between 30 and 60 days after the council meeting.
Since the city is not scheduled to hold a municipal election in November, it would have to schedule a special election to coincide with the state election.
Adams added that for an official who is elected at large, the minimum required number of valid signatures would be 10 percent of the number of registered voters as of the date of the last regular municipal election, which is 1,216.
Joyce is an at-large member of the School Committee, who was re-elected to a three-year term in November 2013.
School Committee Chairman Jim Violette said last week that while he isn’t against the creation of a recall provision, he’s concerned for misuse of the provision if residents simply don’t like a decision.
“If a recall ordinance is drafted, we have to be careful that it has specific language as to the reasons why someone should be recalled,” he said.