By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor
Last Tuesday, while the rest of the nation was watching the president’s State of the Union address, the city of Omaha headed to the voting booths to decide whether Mayor Jim Suttle should stay in office. The final tally was very close – a margin of just two percent decided he should keep his job. There’s a lesson there: if you don’t think your vote counts, think again.
Recall petitions are something of a rite of passage for Nebraska’s city mayors. Nebraska has an incredibly low threshold for getting a recall election started. Petitioners only need signatures equal to or more than 35 percent of the total votes cast in the election. For this one, they only needed a little over 27,000 – a pathetically low number, when you consider that Omaha’s current population is nearly half a million. Even if every eligible voter turns out to the polls, the bar is set so low that nearly anyone can force a recall.
The rationale doesn’t have to be reasonable, either – and this time, it wasn’t. There were no allegations of official misconduct or criminal behavior, not even so much as an unpaid parking ticket.
Among their “reasons,” petitioners cited broken promises and excessive taxation. I’m sure they had plenty of time to think of these reasons while they were waiting the legally mandated six months before they filed their petition, since the committee apparently started its efforts as soon as the election was over.
But that’s all in the past now. The petitioners got what they wanted, and on Jan. 25 Omaha turned out to the polls and voted by a slim margin to keep Suttle on the job.
This was the right decision. It makes no sense to remove an elected official for such trivial reasons. Breaking campaign promises doesn’t make Suttle a criminal, it just makes him a politician. And, the truth is, the value of political promises is debatable anyway. Every politician makes promises on the campaign trail that he finds difficult or unrealistic to keep after the election. Actually doing the job of governing is much harder than talking about it. If the recall had been successful, it would have left Omaha with a lame-duck interim mayor and another election this spring – no doubt followed by yet another recall petition. Stopping this one in its tracks will go a long way toward keeping the city on the right track and restoring some lost credibility.
The system needs to be fixed; that’s certain. The low threshold for signatures and lack of defined standards for recall makes the system a ripe target for political activists with an axe to grind. Tuesday’s vote got national attention – the New York Times ran a story on Nebraska’s embarrassing and often-abused recall system.
Three bills are now being considered in the Nebraska legislature. Legislative Bill 187 would increase the number of signatures required to force a vote, LB 188 would make it illegal for people to sign a petition who had not voted in the actual election and LB 224 would allow recalls only in the case of official misconduct or criminal behavior. Any one of these bills, if passed, would be an important step in fixing a clearly broken system.