Councilor recall could face tough hurdles
A campaign to recall Duluth's 3rd District City Councilor, Sharla Gardner, will face a higher bar than the city's charter might suggest. The charter allows for a recall election if one-quarter of the voters who participated in the last district e...
A campaign to recall Duluth’s 3rd District City Councilor, Sharla Gardner, will face a higher bar than the city’s charter might suggest.
The charter allows for a recall election if one-quarter of the voters who participated in the last district election petition to have their council representative removed from office. City charter dictates that the petition also should state why the individual is unfit to serve out the remainder of his or her elected term.
But Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said the state constitution exacts a tougher standard.
He pointed to a 1959 attempt to recall a Fridley, Minn., city councilor. Although that city’s charter didn’t explicitly state what grounds would be required to unseat a councilor mid-term, Johnson said: “The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that all city charters must be framed in a way that’s consistent with the state constitution.”
Johnson noted that the constitution allows for the removal of an elected official only when he or she is found guilty of malfeasance or nonfeasance.
Jeanette Behr, research manager for the League of Minnesota Cities, agreed.
“In terms of the standards required for removal from office, the state constitution trumps a city’s charter. In order to have a recall, you still have to meet that standard,” Behr said.
Behr described malfeasance as typically synonymous with criminal wrongdoing.
As for nonfeasance, the Supreme Court described it as arising from a situation in which an official, without sufficient reason, neglects or refuses to perform tasks that he or she is legally obligated to do.
Gardner predicts her critics will be unable to adequately justify their efforts to force her out of office, even if they collect the 585 signatures required on their petition.
“Malfeasance means doing something criminal, such as accepting a bribe, and I won’t even let someone buy me a cup of coffee,” she said.
Gardner contends it would be equally difficult to argue that she has been guilty of nonfeasance.
“You can say you don’t agree with me, but you can’t accuse me of not showing up and not having an opinion,” she said.
Johnson said he could not offer a definitive opinion on the petition circulating to recall Gardner.
“I have not received a petition to recall any councilor during my tenure as city attorney,” he said.
“I know there is talk of a petition against Councilor Gardner, but I have not reviewed any such petition,” he said. “So it would be speculative for me to say whether that petition would meet the standards of the city charter or of state law. But if a petition is filed, I will make sure it meets the same requirements articulated in the 1959 Minnesota Supreme Court decision before we consider a recall election.”
Neither Deb Medlin nor Dale Sola, who both have been actively involved in organizing the recall campaign, returned calls from the News Tribune on Thursday. No information on the exact wording of the petition or the number of people who have signed it has yet been publicly disclosed.
Recall proponents have faulted Gardner for failing to successfully block the closure of Park Point’s only fire hall. They also have criticized her support of a controversial long-range plan to one day reroute vehicle traffic on the point and to increase public access to its beaches via 16 newly designated paths.