from the field
By Erin Asheghian, Lori Cunningham and Meg Cutuli

CSBA members provide testimony in Legislature hearing on recall elections

They suggest practical reforms to ensure the process reflects community sentiment

In early December, the California Legislature held a joint informational hearing of the Assembly Elections Committee and Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, “Evaluating California’s State and Local Recall Process,” to review the recall process.

The California Constitution requires the Legislature to “provide for recall of local officers.” For most local jurisdictions that means that local officers may be recalled by submitting a petition signed by at least 10 percent to 30 percent of the registered voters eligible to vote for the targeted official, with the exact percentage depending on the number of registered voters. The timeframe for collecting petition signatures varies from 40 to 160 days depending on the number of registered voters. If the relevant signature threshold for the recall is met, the governing body has 14 days after the meeting at which it receives a certificate of sufficiency to order the recall election, which must be held between 88 and 125 days later.

The hearing’s second panel featured local elected officials speaking about the use of the recall at the local level and needed reforms. Three CSBA members were among the participants in the day’s testimonies: Loma Prieta Joint Unified School District trustee Erin Asheghian, Cupertino USD trustee Lori Cunningham and Los Alamitos USD trustee and CSBA Region 15 Director Meg Cutuli.

The following are excerpts from their written testimonies:

Asheghian: Loma Prieta Joint Union School District (LPJUSD) is a small school district in the Santa Cruz Mountains spanning two counties. Our district is facing a distressing special election petition that threatens its financial viability. Today, your committee may be mostly hearing testimony about standard recall elections, which are governed under State Elections Code section 11000. Our situation is slightly different, and concerns an “appointment recall,” which is governed under State Education Code 5091(c)(1). Unfortunately, the petitions that lead to these appointment recalls, and the subsequent special elections, require many fewer signatures than regular recalls.

Appointment recalls are often particularly egregious situations in which a very small minority of voters can force special elections that are extremely expensive for small districts. State Ed Code 5091(c)(1) states that upon a school board vacancy, the remaining board members can appoint a new member to serve out the term. Once a new member is appointed, only 1.5 percent of the voters in that district can petition to force a special election (compared to 25 percent of the voters needed for a regular recall in most small districts).

In our case, our district has 3,599 voters, thus only 54 signatures were required to force a special election following an appointment — a regular recall would require 900 signatures. The cost of this special election will be exorbitant — LPJUSD is part of both Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, and the specific estimates from the Registrars of Voters were between $167,905 and $570,315 in Santa Clara County and $22,500 in Santa Cruz County.

This amount would force our district to spend 2.5 percent to 8.5 percent of our annual budget on a special election based on a petition needing only 54 signatures. Our district has 431 students and these special election estimates represent a cost of $442-$1375 per student. This committee needs to understand that these special elections are taking hundreds of thousands of dollars away from our public school children and may decimate our budget and reserves beyond our ability to remain open.

women in a suit holds paperwork standing at near a podium
Cunningham: While I do serve as a trustee for Cupertino Union, I am here today in my individual capacity. As I now have personal experience with two serial recall attempts during this current calendar year, I’d like to recount some of my experiences. I hope it helps you to understand the impact and consequences of the existing recall laws, which can legitimize false information.

Cupertino is a district in the bottom 2 percent of Local Control Funding Formula funding statewide. Our community just doesn’t understand and thinks it must be malfeasance when they hear that surrounding districts have nearly double our funding. This has led to increasing unrest and mistrust. School districts in my region and all over the state have been experiencing an unprecedented number of recall efforts in the past year, over what is often a lack of understanding of the complex laws and funding in education, or even just a difference of opinion.

What I’ve observed in the last year is that qualifying a petition for a recall election isn’t always the only intent; simply filing them for circulation to legitimize a false narrative in place of civil discourse is. When the proponents don’t find traction with signature gathering, they pivot to using these recall attempts to disrupt district business, bludgeon the reputation of school districts and public education in the community, and intimidate and harass the elected trustees who serve.

I live in a district with 78,000 voters and was the highest vote-getter in district history in 2018. Yet it took just 10 signatures to file the notice of intention to begin circulating petitions for recall, after which they have a full five and a half months to gather just 15 percent of registered voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“We have received profanity-laced phone calls in the middle of the night and we’ve had people coming to our home to harass whichever family member answered the door, including my school-aged children. I’ve been subjected to incredibly unsafe language posted, emailed or stated publicly, such as threats of “keeping a gun to my head,” threats of putting “a sword to my neck,” and to “keep my seat warm because he was coming.”
Lori Cunningham, Trustee, Cupertino USD
Recall attempts often are timed to trigger costly special elections and result in money that won’t get to students. In Santa Clara County, at least five school districts (including mine) have faced an unbudgeted $1 million to $1.2 million expense if any of the recall attempts collect enough signatures to qualify and force a special election.

In my case, the first attempt to circulate a petition for recall expired Oct. 4 when less than 20 percent of required signatures were collected. However, during the five and a half months allowed for circulation, proponents used it to stoke anger and mistrust in the community. The same proponent refiled a second notice of intention to recall just two weeks after the first expired. It is an egregiously false and misleading narrative from start to finish. But, as our existing laws allow recall for any reason, regardless of substance, there is no recourse, and voters have no protections to ensure veracity before signing or voting.

I would also like to give you a small glimpse of what my family and I have been subjected to with these recalls, often incited by the false claims pedaled in these petitions. We have received profanity-laced phone calls in the middle of the night and we’ve had people coming to our home to harass whichever family member answered the door, including my school-aged children. I’ve been subjected to incredibly unsafe language posted, emailed or stated publicly, such as threats of “keeping a gun to my head,” threats of putting “a sword to my neck,” and to “keep my seat warm because he was coming.”

I’m heartbroken to tell you that I will not rerun for another term next fall. I am one of many highly qualified, knowledgeable and experienced board members I know leaving public service altogether at the end of their current terms. I’m fearful for what this will mean for districts and students all over the state, and frankly you all should be too. But from the perspective of considering recall reform, you should also know that if the current petition circulating for my recall were to qualify by next April, it would mean a special election costing a million dollars for our schools would take place likely just three to four months before the end of my term.

Cutuli: I am a member of the Los Alamitos Unified School District Board of Education. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the California School Boards Association.

I want to state for the record that there is no question that the recall process is a crucial tool for voters and serves a critical role in creating accountability in our representative democracy. However, there are aspects of the local process that need your attention today to help improve transparency, fairness and make recalls more reflective of the interests of the communities in which they are being considered.

The Legislature should consider if only 10 signatures is a sufficient threshold to launch an official recall effort. This excessively low bar enables some proponents to use the notice for purposes other than it was intended, which is to signal the beginning of the recall process.

Similarly, the number of signatures required to qualify a recall for the ballot should also be reviewed. Having as few as 10 to 20 percent of the registered voters in an electoral jurisdiction qualify a recall election is a very low measure of community sentiment. Without safeguards, a small fraction of total voters can create unintended consequences that negatively affect all voters.

Another part of the process that needs revision is the proponent statement and office-holder answer. Unlike the rules around candidate statements, which must meet administrative and legal requirements for accuracy and content, there are no similar statutory guidelines for the recall statement and answer. Without these guidelines, official election materials may contain false, misleading and untruthful content. Voters deserve better. The information in the statement and answer should be subject to similar reviews that enable the office holder, the proponent and the voter to ensure their accuracy.

Voters also deserve to know the full financial impact of the recall on the district when asked to sign a recall petition. Voters should have this information accessible at the time they review the petition, which should include the total estimated costs of the recall election and break those costs down based on the district’s average daily attendance.

Lastly, to minimize the cost impact that special recall elections have on school budgets, recalls should be combined with the next regularly scheduled election. This will help reduce total election expenses for school districts and help increase voter participation.

The California School Boards Association is reviewing these and other ideas to help make recalls more transparent and reduce election costs on school districts throughout the state. I ask you to work with them as you consider reforms in this area.