It's time to give Bay State voters the right to recall state officials

MANY voters have long memories. Few, however, have anything approaching instant recall. In Massachusetts, getting rid of public officials who seriously fail to perform their duties is all but impossible before their term's end. The commonwealth has no provision for recalling a statewide officeholder.

Constitutionally provided impeachment processes are generally slow and complex, as they should be. And their use is rare and quite properly confined to those charged with gross misconduct in office.

Many municipal charters throughout the commonwealth give dissatisfied citizens the right, through a special election, to oust local officials in whom they have lost confidence. A few weeks ago, for example, Wareham voters, incensed over the town selectmen's handling of a controversial zoning matter, used the process to dismiss four of the five officials involved.

Although recalls are infrequent, many cities across the country, including San Francisco, where Mayor Diane Feinstein survived just such a challenge in 1983, have the arrangement available.

So, too, do at least 15 states, from Florida to Alaska.

But Massachusetts is not one of them, and for reasons considerably more political than practical, state lawmakers here are not about to help the commonwealth move in that direction.

At least three proposals to bring recall of statewide officeholders and legislators within reach of voters have been filed for consideration by the senators and representatives in 1986. It must be noted, however, that similar measures have been offered in the past and got nowhere.

Whether the idea is one whose time has come in the Bay State could hinge substantially on the efforts of its sponsors, Reps. John A. Businger (D) of Brookline, Andrew S. Natsios (R) of Holliston, and William G. Robinson (R) of Melrose. Also needed will be strong support from various good-government forces as well as the two major political parties.

Obviously many lawmakers are apprehensive that a recall might be used as a tool to harass them and their colleagues. But that has not been the experience of those states in which the removal mechanism is available. And there is nothing to suggest things would be any different here, providing getting a recall question on the ballot was not too easy.

In Kansas, voter signatures totaling 40 percent of those who went to the polls in the previous election for the particular office involved is required to put an ouster proposal on the ballot. Elsewhere the grass-roots support requirement ranges from 15 to 25 percent.

None of the proposed recall amendments to the Bay State constitution would require that level of signature support. For Massachusetts, something in the range of 25 to 35 percent would seem appropriate. It would prevent cluttering the ballot with frivolous recall attempts, sparked by disgruntled splinter groups or even publicity-seeking crackpots.

No elected official who is doing a good job, even if sometimes casting an unpopular vote, need be concerned about removal. But in instances where an official is consistently and substantially out of step with those who put him or her in office or who proves irresponsible or incompetent, the interests of the public might best be served by not waiting until the next regularly scheduled election to unseat that official.

Because of the considerable effort required to collect enough signatures for a recall election, there is little doubt that attempts to use this device to remove a state official would be few.

If nothing else, the availability of the recall process might tend to make officeholders more accountable to their constituents and perhaps a bit more conscientious. Clearly one unpopular vote should not in itself be grounds for removal unless something bordering on malfeasance or outright corruption is involved.

An elected official need not be a convicted felon to be unfit to continue to hold his position of responsibility and public trust.

In the interest of fairness, no officeholder should be subjected to more than one recall challenge per term. The reason for such a proposed removal should be stated succinctly on petitions seeking support for the special election, and also ought to be printed on the ballot should the ouster bid get that far.

To further protect the recall from abuse by vested interests, any such state constitutional provision might require not merely a majority of those going to the polls in the special election but an amount not less than a majority of those who voted when the recall-challenged official was elected.

No public official doing a good job -- even a mediocre job -- need fear facing a possible recall.

Those who suggest otherwise are at least misled and perhaps even more than a bit fearful it might force them not only to stick closer to the people's business but also to resist the temptation for wheeling and dealing.

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