January 15 2020

Should Burlington Have a Bylaw to Recall Elected Officials?

By: Rich Hosford

The question of a bylaw that could be used to recall town-wide elected officials has been part of the discussion of the Bylaw Review Committee but there are still many questions to be answered. 


During Tuesday night’s meeting the committee heard from Board of Appeals member and former Town Meeting member Adam Tigges who has been working on the language of the bylaw. He said he thought of the need for it after listening to people debate the question of changing the Treasurer/Tax Collector from elected to appointed after the announcement that Brian Curtin, who had held the position for over 40 years, was looking to retire. He said on multiple occasions he heard those arguing to keep the position elected say that if someone unqualified was elected that the town could recall them. 


“I had been told we don’t have that in the bylaws,” he said. “I think it’s an important tool for citizens of the town.” 


Tigges said he looked at other communities in the area that have recall bylaws and used them for direction. He said he worked most closely to Bedford’s bylaw because it was the most straightforward but also made some changes that he said he feels fits Burlington. 


There are still a lot to work out in the details but in general this is how it works. If an individual or group of people want to recall an elected official they must form a committee by pulling the necessary recall paperwork and signing their names to it. They will then act as the point group for all correspondence from the town. 


Tigges said he thought it was important that anyone trying to recall an elected official to put their names to the effort. 


The committee must then get the requisite number of signatures from registered Burlington voters. As it is currently written the bylaw would require that number to be 15 percent plus one of the total votes cast in the most recent annual town-wide election. The signatures must be collected within 35 days. 


If that happens it will trigger a special recall election the date of which will be set by the Board of Selectmen in accordance with state law. All regular notifications to voters would be made by the Town Clerk. 


As the draft bylaw is currently written, during the recall election voters will be asked if the official should be removed from office. If they vote yet the current office holder’s term will end 10 business days from the date of the election.


The draft bylaw also states that anyone else interested in running for the seat can pull nomination papers and be on the same ballot as the recall question. If no candidate is on the ballot the seat will be filled by the normal procedure of that board or committee for filling vacancies when someone leaves during their term. 


There are some limitations, such as that an elected official cannot be recalled within the first 180 days of an election. Tigges said this was to prevent someone who lost an election immediately trying to recall their former opponent. Also, this is for town-wide offices only and not for Town Meeting members. 


Along with some technical details and wording choices there are some questions about the recall bylaw. The biggest that came up in the meeting was when it should be used and if a list of possible recall-worthy actions or behaviors should be included. 


Tigges said he didn’t think they should have a predetermined list of possible actions and that the process, which has a high bar and requires the recall committee to convince fellow residents, would only allow legitimate concerns to make it to the ballot. 


He also said the bylaw was not aimed at anyone currently in town government or surrounding any particular issue. 


“There is no target of this,” he said. “It’s a tool I think is common. We have some positions that are for long terms - five years - in town and I think this is a good stop gap measures that other towns have and I think we should too.”


“I hope we never get to the point we use it but it should be there,” he added. 


Town Clerk Amy Warfield, who spoke to BNEWS by phone on Wednesday, said she was unconvinced it was necessary to have such a bylaw. She said under state law that anyone who is convicted of a felony is prohibited from holding elected office so most really egregious behavior is accounted for by that rule. 


She also said that for more common complaints, such as people being elected but failing to show up at meetings or otherwise carry out their duties in office, can be handled by other members of the board or committee pressuring them or by airing their complaints in the press. She also pointed out that for possible disagreements over policy most boards have at least one open seat per year and any eligible voter can run and try and make their voices heard. 


“I don’t know what problem they would be trying to solve and I think it needs further investigation,” she said.


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