Giving Bay Staters the right to recall corrupt elected officials

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MOST elected officials are conscientious. They take their responsibilities seriously and do what they think is in the best public interest. Most, but not all. Once in office, some do what they can to feather their own political nests and ignore the wishes of their constituents in favor of pleasing special interests.

And in Massachusetts there usually is not much disappointed voters can do, until the official seeks reelection.

Unlike some of its municipalities and at least 15 other states, Massachusetts has no provision to allow voters to remove an elected official before term's end, except through a complex and time-consuming impeachment process. And that, depending on the post involved, could take several years.

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If some Bay State lawmakers have their way, however, a change in this situation may be in the offing. House Republican floor leader Steven D. Pierce of Westfield and five GOP colleagues are pushing to amend the Massachusetts constitution to permit voters to recall elected officials.

Their proposal, like recall measures elsewhere, would require substantial citizen support before the question of removing an officeholder could be placed on the ballot.

Anyone attempting to oust a statewide official would have to collect voter signatures equal to 12 percent of the total ballots cast for that seat in the most recent election. The minimum needed to set the recall wheels in motion for any other elective post would be 20 percent of the most recent turnout in the district involved.

Recall petitioners would have to state their reasons for the proposed removal. That would be printed on the ballot along with a brief rebuttal prepared by the targeted officeholder.

It then would be up to the voters to decide if the stated reason was sufficient to justify the recall. It would take a simple majority of those voting to oust an official.

In addition, recall petitions could not be circulated during the first six months of a term or during the last nine months of a less than four-year term or final year of a longer term. That, if nothing else, would save the cost of a special election. It makes no sense to expend taxpaper money and time and effort trying to recall somebody whose days in office are nearly over.

Boosters of the proposal to provide for recall through the state constitution contend the tool is needed to prevent officials from abuse of power and help keep them in tune with the will of those they were elected to represent.

Several Massachusetts cities and towns that have recall available, through their municipal charter, have used this vehicle to remove certain elected officials.

In November 1985, for example, displeased local citizens in Wareham ousted four of that town's five selectmen through such a challenge. The move stemmed from the controversial handling of a local rezoning measure.

Recall critics, who in the past have been able to stymie such proposals, warn the device could be misused by allies of losing office seekers to harass those elected.

Such concerns, however, may be unfounded, especially in light of the number of signatures that would have to be collected to put a recall proposal on the ballot.

Removal of the governor, for example, would take no less than 213,272 petitioners statewide, something hardly easy to manage even if there were a compelling reason to vacate the executive chair.

An official doing a good job, therefore, should have nothing to fear.

Certainly this potential good-government safeguard has worked well elsewhere.

If thousands of voters, for whatever reason, have lost confidence in an elected official, there should be a means of at least getting that message across to the person involved, even if that move does not succeed in his recall.

The possibility of recall just might help keep certain public officials a bit closer to those they supposedly serve.

The successor of a recalled official would be elected on the same ballot. That would prevent citizens of the district from being deprived, even for a few days, of representation within state, county, or municipal government.

It also would save the state or municipality the expense of another special election.

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