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How Would Your City Handle A Mayor Like Rob Ford?

Mayor Rob Ford talks during a City Council debate in Toronto on Nov. 13.
Nathan Denette
Mayor Rob Ford talks during a City Council debate in Toronto on Nov. 13.

If an American city had a mayor as embarrassing as Rob Ford of Toronto, whose problems with drugs and alcohol have caused an international sensation, it could get rid of him.


Recalls of local elected officials have become more common in the U.S. over the past few years.

"The recall does have its values for things that don't rise to the level of a crime that people feel should be punished, or when they don't want a guy who's doing that leading their city," says Joshua Spivak, who runs the .

Voters are able to recall mayors or other local officials in at least 29 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. State officials are subject to recall in 19 states.

But in jurisdictions like Toronto that don't have recall laws in place, Spivak says, "you're stuck."

Throwing Them Out

Like Ford, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner became infamous this past summer — as a serial harasser — and sought to ride it out and keep his office. He ultimately had to resign his seat, not long after a recall movement was launched against him.

On Saturday, voters in Port Allen, La., recalled Mayor Demetric "Deedy" Slaughter. She had given herself a raise and put her brother-in-law in power while watching a number of longtime city employees resign on her watch, but her supporters said that racial politics were at play.

And — spoiler alert — NBC last Thursday aired an episode of Parks and Recreation in which Leslie Knope was recalled from her seat on the fictional Pawnee, Ind., City Council.

Over the past few years, the number of recalls has grown to such an extent that groups including the U.S. Conference of Mayors are concerned " recall fever" threatens to take out too many politicians simply for doing their job.

Difficult To Change Laws

The requirements for a recall election vary by state. Sometimes criminal or ethical misconduct is required, but many states allow recalls for any reason at all.

States occasionally "tweak" their recall laws, but making big changes is tough because recall provisions are enshrined in state constitutions, says Wendy Underhill, who monitors election laws for NCSL.

In 2010, Illinois voters approved a new recall law applying to governors, after the state's previous two governors had been convicted of criminal charges.

But in general, states now seem more interested in curbing voters' recall power, rather than expanding it — no politician likes a recall. And an increasing number of officeholders have faced recall votes not because of corruption or other crimes, but simply because some share of the public disagreed with the policies they were pursuing.

That was true for Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a recall vote last year after pushing through anti-union legislation, as well as Colorado Democratic state Senate President John Morse, who was ousted in September owing to his support for a gun control law.

Last Thursday, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill that would limit recall elections of state officials to cases involving crimes or serious ethics investigations. A similar measure regarding local officials is also under consideration.

"It's time that we [restored] predictability back to the election process," said GOP state Rep. Jim Steineke, author of the bill covering state offices. "Elected officials shouldn't have to fear that a tough vote might escalate to a recall election."

But his bill faces many more procedural hurdles. And even in Wisconsin, whose political system was traumatized by the big-money recall elections of Walker and more than a dozen state senators in 2011 and 2012, no one is talking about eliminating the recall altogether.

The mayor and two members of the City Council in Glenwood City, Wis., are facing recall elections next month in a dispute over where to site a sand mine.

Global Recall

Recall laws are a remnant of the Progressive Era when, among other things, populist politicians fought to break up special-interest control of state governments through ballot initiatives.

Spivak, who is a senior fellow at the Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, notes that recall laws were born in younger states in the West, such as Oregon and California, and only spread partway back to the East.

"Canada doesn't have that same tradition," he says. "That could be why Toronto doesn't have it and places like LA do."

The U.S. is among the world leaders in recall elections, but such votes are also commonly held in countries such as Peru and Colombia.

In Poland, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz survived a recall vote last month. Ninety-five percent of voters favored the recall, but only 26 percent of Warsaw's registered voters showed up, short of the 29 percent minimum turnout required under Polish law.

Other countries, such as Romania, erect similar hurdles. And recalls are tough to pull off in British Columbia, the only Canadian province that allows such elections. Petitioners have to collect signatures from 40 percent of registered voters, a bar no one has yet been able to cross.

Ford Liked The Idea

In another western Canadian province, the Wildrose Party of Alberta included the creation of recalls as part of its platform in elections last year but didn't come to power.

Since July, Mike Allen, a member of the province's legislative assembly, has resisted calls to resign his seat despite being charged in Minnesota in a prostitution sting. Allen was arguably Canada's top argument in favor of recalls — until evidence emerged of Rob Ford's use of crack.

Ford himself said he favored creation of a recall vote during the 2010 election.

"There are many priorities when it comes to bringing accountability to city hall, and recall legislation is certainly one that I support," Ford said.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.