Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harris is in a Race for His Job

What's wrong with this picture?

This is City Councillor Don Harris of District 9 chasing his two and a half-year-old son, Joshua, across the council chambers, March 6, during a town hall meeting to discuss City’s Safe Traffic Operations Program referred to as the STOP ordinance.

He really upset some of his constituents with his voting record and they have launched a recall effort.

Harris prevailed in a run-off election two years ago against incumbent Tina Cummins.

Harris was the top vote getter in the Oct 4, 2005, municipal election with 2,625 votes or 34.95 percent in a four-candidate race. However, he did not garner the necessary required 40 percent to win. Cummins received 1,924 or 26.73 percent of the vote; the other two candidates: Chris Catechis received 1,856 or 25.07 percent, while Vivian Cordova received 1,024 or 13.24 percent of the vote. A total of 7,429 ballots were cast.

In the Nov. 21, 2005, run-off election, of the 3,687 votes cast from 12.75 percent of the registered voters in the district, Harris received 66.4 percent of the ballots cast, with 2,451, according to the certificate of canvass found on the city clerks’ web site.

A recall effort was organized under the name “New Mexicans for Democracy,” led by B. James Lowe, a retired Navy Admiral.

City Clerk Millie Santillanes, left, determined, citing the City Charter’s requirement that 25 percent of the voters cast ballots in the election where the councillor was elected in, must sign a petition to trigger a recall vote. The number in this case would be 922 according to Santillanes’ calculation. New Mexicans for Democracy turned in almost 1,000 valid signatures.

Harris filed suit in District Court contending that the run-off election had been a continuation of the municipal election and the proper number of signatures should have been 2,100. A quick math check shows that one quarter of 7,429 votes cast in the original election is 1,857.

Second Judicial District Court’s Chief Judge William Lang, left, with former Bernalillo County Attorney Tito Chavez in 1997, ruled Wed. that Santillanes’ reading of the charter and her calculations were correct.

Lowe wrote a letter to Council President Debbie O’Malley requesting that the council include holding the recall during the upcoming municipal election scheduled Oct 2.

There is an irony here; Chávez had supported Cummins who had aligned herself with the mayor on many issues. After the run-off election, the mayor’s chief fundraiser Terrie Baird organized an event, held June 29, 2006 at Scalo Northern Italian Grill, to help reduce campaign expenses for Harris. The invitation read, “Please join Mayor Martin J. Chávez & Don Harris… Suggested contribution $500.00… Make checks payable to: Committee to elect Don Harris.”

One of the main issues that triggered New Mexicans for Democracy’s efforts was the reporting of some $30,000 raised at the event that was not properly documented on the City clerk’s campaign financing web site.

Harris has sided with a majority of the council against several of the mayor’s proposals and is one of a block of six councillors that has over-ridden several vetoes.

Councillor Craig Loy recently introduced a charter amendment that passed 8-1; with Councillor Brad Winter voting against.

“Requiring a determination or probable cause to find misconduct in office prior to a recall petition being circulated. Requiring a recall petition to contain at least thirty three and one-third percent of the votes cast in the last regular municipal election for the position for which recall is sought. Prohibiting recall elections in the last six months of a term.”

Chávez vetoed Loy’s charter amendment, but the council overrode it 7-1-1; with Winter voting against and Harris having left the meeting prior to the vote.

So what's wrong with this picture?

Loy retired from the Albuquerque Police Department as a captain with more than 20 years service. However, he shows that he didn’t learn any basic law in that time.

Only once in the-33 year history of the current city charter have there been enough needed petition signatures gathered to trigger a recall. It was against then District 8 Councillor Richard Chapman in 1989. His offense was that he suggested a smoking ban. The recall failed.

Recall has always been a powerful political tool available to the electorate who are upset with the performance of their representatives.

Loy, above right with Council President O'Malley, left and fellow Councillor Sally Mayer, center, complained that he disliked the use of a recall, most recently used against Mayer last year, which failed for a lack of necessary signatures and Harris now. It appears he is suggesting that once elected, voters should not be able to affect their representatives.

However, Loy’s choice of the words “determination or probable cause to find misconduct in office” means a criminal act. There are two problems; recalls allow for political acts as grounds to pursue an elected official and criminal acts are grounds, in and of themselves, to remove a person from office.

The state law is very clear on the issue of malfeasance.

“3-10-7. Officers; removal for malfeasance in office; complaint; jurisdiction of district court; hearing; serving notice.
Any person elected or appointed to an elective office of a municipality may be removed for malfeasance in office by the district court upon complaint of the mayor or governing body of the municipality. Any such officer is entitled to a hearing at a time fixed by the court after not less than ten days' notice of such proceedings by service, as in the case of summons in civil actions, with a copy of the complaint filed in the proceedings.”

It’s up to the voters in district 9 to evaluate Harris’ performance and to vote their conscience.

Should Harris be recalled, Mayor Martin Chávez would make an appointment to fill the two year unexpired position. That might be as much a consideration for voters as is Harris’ voting record.

My take:

The only issue I have a great deal of problems with was Harris’ unsuccessful attempt to move or remove the public comment section from the beginning of council meetings. I don’t agree with every position he takes, but for me, I wouldn’t think that is grounds for his recall.

The voters are exercising their prerogative. I don’t know if they are right or wrong. It’s their decision. All elected officials risk upsetting their constituents and have to weigh their action with the knowledge they may evoke the voter’s wrath at the polls.

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