Mayors Latest Target for Angry Voter Recalls

Deep cuts put local officials on the defensive as recall efforts mount.

Mayors and town officials are feeling the heat from steamed voters as they lay off police officers and firefighters, squeeze school programs, cut swimming pool hours and boost parking fines in an effort to balance local budgets.

As they face the same anger that many members of Congress had to deal with in the 2010 elections, a growing number of mayors find themselves facing recall efforts.

About 175 recall campaigns are under way this year. There were 70 attempts in 2010, after just 23 in 2009.

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With federal and state assistance uncertain and local tax revenue dwindling, a majority of cities and townships have trimmed budgets for local law enforcement, fire and safety, hospitals, school staffing, local road repairs, local airport hours, bus routes, water and sewer servicing, social services, parks management and other programs large and small.

The recall efforts are a reflection of unrest and the sense that citizens’ tax dollars aren’t paying for the same level of service they used to get. These folks are more concerned about why the pothole on their street hasn’t been fixed than about the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

So, the mayors are in a bind. Lower revenues and less aid from federal and state governments leave them little choice but to make cuts and deal with an angry public. But trying to raise taxes, which many locales have already done in recent years, would invite similar fire.

Notable recall efforts are under way in Akron, Ohio; Kansas City and Springfield, Mo.; Laredo, Texas; Bridgeport, Conn.; Augusta, Ga. and Tempe, Ariz. But voters are fighting back in smaller towns, too. In Battletown, Ky., the closing of a farmers’ market enraged voters. In Elgin, Wis., a recall campaign grew out of unhappiness with the elimination of two bus routes. And in Cranford, N.J., the flames of discontent are being stoked by plans to sharply curtail library hours.

The spike in the number of recall efforts puts many mayors on notice, especially in small towns where a seemingly minor budget cut may elicit voter activism and enliven local social media chat rooms.

The mayor of Ogden, Kan., for instance, was recalled after laying off two lifeguards at the town pool. The mayor thought he was saving tax dollars, but voters didn’t agree. They portrayed the mayor as a heartless job cutter and an opponent of the town pool. And just like that, his political career was sunk.

There’s a new mayor in Ogden, and he’s looking at an even tighter budget. He, too, is facing some difficult decisions. Among the potential targets he is examining: the town-run soccer field. Some locals are now talking about giving him the boot, too.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter