Removing local elected officials is harder in Pa. than almost anywhere

    Jessica Cross

    Jessica Cross

    Almost all states give people more options for ousting municipal officials than Pennsylvania.

     To be exact, all but two: Utah and Mississippi.

    The question came up recently amid West York Mayor Charles Wasko resisting to step down over his racist Facebook posts.

    The public backlash put the 4,500-person borough on the map and prompted resignation demands from the Anti-Defamation League, Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, Gov. Tom Wolf, an online petition signed by more than 2,000 people, and a packed house at the last Borough Council meeting.

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    Wasko didn’t attend, so didn’t hear the two hours of public testimony or see the crowd of about 150 people spilling onto the sidewalk outside borough hall.

    Since then, the unapologetic mayor has resigned.

    It’s anyone’s guess whether the turnout will be — or whether it will include Wasko.

    Wasko doesn’t really have to show up, it turns out

    As mayor, Wesko doesn’t have much power. He’s unpaid, votes only to break a tie and has some control over the police department.

    But even as power, pay and duties vary for among the Commonwealth’s 2,500-plus municipalities, one consistency is elected officials cannot be removed from office absent involvement by the state legislature (unless they become disqualified, such as by moving out of the jurisdiction they were elected to represent).

    Even in the case of chronic absenteeism, for example, according to municipal attorney Matthew Battersby.

    He’s seen it a handful of times during his three decades advising boroughs and townships in Adams County, 12 miles from West York.

    “We do not have a call just to remove someone from office, just for not showing up,” Battersby says.

    Most states give local governing bodies the option to set attendance policies with penalties that include removal from office.

    Pennsylvania isn’t one of those states, though.

    Wasko’s most objectionable actions — the racist social media activity — also wouldn’t constitute clear grounds for removal in most states, according to political scientist and William & Mary College professor John McGlennon.

    “The fact of the matter is, voters chose this person, that just suggests the importance that people ought to apply to filing public offices when they are available,” says McGlennon.

    Only Utah and Mississippi have rules as strict as Pennsylvania’s, according to a Keystone Crossroads analysis of state policies.

    Progressive Era pattern

    There’s a pattern linked to the Progressivism, a movement at the turn of the 20th century based in the West and upper Midwest. Today, people in those areas tend to have the most direct initiative and referendum laws, including recall and removal of elected officials. Enacting these measures meant officials themselves had to support increasing their own accountability, which tended to not happen if the officials were corrupt, McGlennon says.

    “It might not surprise you that it was easier to adopt the reforms in places where the problem wasn’t greatest,” McGlennon says. “Places like Pennsylvania which were at that time pretty heavily dominated by special interests had very little interest in changing.”

    Other states’ recall rules

    Here’s the breakdown of where these laws stand now, according to our analysis:

    Twelve states don’t allow recall elections at the local level, but — with the exception of Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Utah — do let local governing bodies vote out one of their own for various reasons.

    Twenty-one states allow recall in certain communities and — with the exception of Texas — give some removal power to local governing bodies.

    And 17 allow recall elections at the local level, in every municipality.

    Rules and process vary even within these basic frameworks, and it’s a balancing act, McGlennon says.

    “If anybody can bring a recall petition for any reason can really create a chilling effect on decision makers who have to make what are sometimes unpopular choices,” McGlennon says.

    McGlennon says events that stimulate a recall can be as universal as a tax hike — or more unusual (Aspen’s fur ban in the 1990s, for example).

    Some state’s standards are so high that theoretically permissible removal and recalls are, in reality, borderline impossible, he says.

    So what does a good recall law look like?

    McGlennon and other experts say it should clearly define non-criminal behavior worthy of sending the recall question to voters and a straightforward process — including timelines — for getting the question to ballot.

    “It shouldn’t be an overwhelmingly onerous task,” McGlennon says. “Probably something in the range of 10 percent of the electorate” signing the petition for the recall election.

    McGlennon’s suggested criteria are reflected in recall election ordinances on the books in at least 32 of Pennsylvania municipalities with a home rule charter, often with a higher standard for petition support (40 percent is popular).

    At least 27 charters have rules about duties of office and penalties for shirking them, including removal from office by the local governing body.

    Most of the charters were adopted in the 1970s and never updated to reflect subsequent state Supreme Court decisions establishing deference to the removal process (impeachment by state lawmakers) set out by the state Constitution.

    “I’ve never actually seen that done in the past 30 years I’ve been practicing law,” Battersby says. “They’ve never gone that far up the line.”

    Attempts to change Pa. law

    Since 1979, there have been 22 different bills proposing changing the state constitution to allow for local recall, according to Temple University’s public policy database.

    One of the earliest on file was introduced by Stephen Reed. Reed’s awaiting the start of his corruption trial rooted in seven terms as Harrisburg mayor, but started his political career in the General Assembly.

    More recently, it’s been state Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Elwood City. Two bills a session, every session, since Gibbons took office in 2007. In every case, the proposed legislation (which Gibbons says he modeled after rules on the books in Minnesota) is referred to the House State Government Committee and never moves.

    He cites the case of the former treasurer of Lawrence County, which is included in his district. Gary Felasco stayed in office for more than three years after being charged with embezzlement and skipping town, Gibbons says.

    Gibbons says he gets calls from residents when something like that happens. The public outcry often translates into new or additional co-sponsors, he says, but enough momentum never seems to materialize.

    Local government organizations in Pennsylvania told me they don’t see local recall or removal as one of their legislative priorities either. In fact, they supported changing conflict state statutes to agree with the Constitution and related case law.

    “Every now and then, something flares up. But no one in our memership’s been talking to me about it or clamoring for it,” says Pennsylvania League of Municipalities Executive Director Rick Schuettler. “You can pressure them, but as long as they want to keep the seat, there’s nothing you can do.”

    Until the next election, that is.

    Plenty of residents from West York and nearby communities say with rules as they are in Pennsylvania, the shame and outrage over Wasko’s bigotry should spur people to get more involved in public life.

     Editor’s note: This post was updated to correct details about the Lawrence County treasurer case, and to reflect changes in Mayor Charles Wasko’s resignation and the date of former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed’s trial.

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