Missouri bills target school boards, county commissioners for recalls
Voters lined up outside the Boone County Government Center to cast absentee ballots in November 2020 (photo by Rudi Keller/The Missouri Independent).
As public schools prepared to reopen last summer, local school boards chose between in-person learning, online instruction or a blend of the two.
The agitation didn’t stop as the year progressed. In Columbia, for example, parents frustrated with online instruction organized in late September to push for a return to school buildings. The district did bring elementary students to classrooms in October, but reverted to virtual education early in November as coronavirus case numbers rose.
With such divergent demands, it was impossible to make all parents happy. Some felt their concerns were not heard.
Now, if one central Missouri lawmaker has his way, “lack of responsiveness to concerns raised by the public or staff” would be one of several grounds for recalling board members.
State Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, has filed a bill adding school boards to the list of government agencies subject to recall under state law, alongside officials in third-class cities, fire districts and ambulance districts.
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Basye attended the September meeting with Columbia parents and said recently that the district has long-standing issues with being responsive.
“Many parents in Columbia Public Schools are very, very upset about the school board and the CPS administration not getting the kids back in class in person,” Basye said.
While there is no recall process for state officials such as the governor or state lawmakers, many local officials are subject to recall under home-rule charters for cities and counties.
Another set of officials targeted for a new recall process in legislation filed for the session that begins Jan. 6 are commissioners of first class counties. Like school boards, commissioners have sometimes been responsible for unpopular decisions addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, although the two Clay County legislators who filed commissioner recall legislation said their bill is spurred by issues unrelated to the coronavirus.
“Principally, when you have an elective office that has a term of four years, there really needs to be a mechanism in place for recall,” state Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, said. “That way you can protect against someone who is not living up to the responsibilities of that office or does not reflect the will of their constituents.”
Basye’s bill for school boards is modeled on the provisions for fire and ambulance districts. To bring a sitting board member before voters, petitioners would have to gather signatures equal to 25 percent of the votes cast in the most recent election in the district. If a recall petition meets that standard, the board member could be ousted on a simple majority vote.
His bill includes some of the standard reasons for removing a public official – misconduct in office, moral turpitude or abuse of power. And along with lack of responsiveness, it makes “promotion and implementation of measures that are counterproductive to the best interests of the students and staff of the school district” grounds for recall.
Basye’s issues with decisions of the Columbia board predate the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been a strong supporter of parents of children with disabilities who have demanded the right to record educational planning meetings. The district has resisted but offered a compromise in February after Basye filed a bill requiring districts to allow the recordings.
No formal action has been taken to change the policy and Basye has refiled the legislation, which made it through the House last year.
As the current chairman of the House Education Committee, and likely to retain a significant voice in education matters in the coming term, Basye’s bills have to be taken seriously, said Brent Ghan of the Missouri School Boards Association.
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The association will oppose recall elections for school boards, he said. Board members often make controversial decisions members believe are in the best interests of students.
“They need confidence they can make those decisions even if they aren’t popular,” Ghan said. “The environment we are in right now is a great example.”
The county commissioner recall bills filed by Richey and state Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, are identical except for the majority needed to toss someone out of office. Richey’s bill sets the standard at 60 percent, while Ellebracht would allow the recall to succeed on a simple majority.
To get on the ballot, the recall petition would need signatures from registered voters equal to 10 percent of the ballots cast when the officeholder was elected. The bill limits recall elections to the 14 – soon to be 13 – first class, non-charter counties.
While disarray in Clay County government is the reason for filing the bill, both lawmakers said, its voters in November adopted the state’s first home-rule county constitution. A county constitution can confer the same powers as a charter, used in four counties, but has a different process for creation.
“Clay County has a problem with commissioners not getting along and wasting a lot of money,” Ellebracht said. “We were stuck for about four years with some commissioners who were really bad and we couldn’t do anything to remove them from office.”
The upcoming session won’t be the first recent attempt to enact a recall process for commissioners but it hasn’t moved far in past years, said Dick Burke, executive director of the Missouri Association of Counties.
“It was very evident this was a Clay County issue last year,” he said. “It didn’t seem like it was coming from anywhere else.”
The association would oppose the bill and the tension over decisions made this year are a good reason why the power should not exist, Burke said.
“These folks are elected and they are elected to make decisions and they are not going to please everybody,” he said.
Richey disagreed. While the new constitution for Clay County will start taking effect Jan. 1, he said the need for recall may occur elsewhere.
“I think it can prove helpful to county residents in any number of scenarios where they lose confidence in their commissioners,” Richey said.
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