The Incompetent Recall

The two recall petitions against Oakland Mayor Jean Quan have been riddled with errors and rejected at least three times by the city clerk.

Proponents of the recall campaigns against Jean Quan claim she’s not fit to be mayor, but records and interviews show that the recall efforts have been plagued by errors that raise questions about the competence of the people behind them. The two recall petitions — being operated by three separate groups — have been rejected at least three times by the Oakland City Clerk’s Office for misspellings and for failure to fill out forms properly. In addition, one of the groups alleges that the petition now being circulated by the other two groups should be disqualified for additional errors. And, finally, the leader of one of the recall groups, political activist Gene Hazzard, claims that the other group circulating the petition he spearheaded is using the wrong forms.

The numerous missteps, along with deep divisiveness within the three groups, have made for a chaotic situation. It also has meant that, as of late last week, none of the campaigns had fully launched their signature-gathering drives. Moreover, if one of the groups is right, and the original petition pushed by Hazzard is defective, then all of the signatures collected so far will not count. “I think there’s reason to be concerned,” said Ken Pratt, a leader of the one of the recall groups.

The series of errors began almost immediately after Hazzard, Pratt, and other activists decided last fall to launch a recall effort against Quan. It took this group three times to get their petition paperwork filled out properly with the city, according to Assistant City Clerk Tamika Thomas. The city was forced to reject the petition twice because of errors that, if allowed to remain, would have invalidated all subsequent signatures that the groups collected.

And even though the city clerk ultimately certified Hazzard’s petition, a third recall group is now challenging it. This third group, which is led by former mayoral candidate Greg Harland (who finished in eighth place among ten candidates in the 2010 election), also is threatening to sue the city if the clerk’s office does not disqualify Hazzard’s petition. A letter to the city from James Sutton, a lawyer for Harland’s group, argued that Hazzard failed to publish in a local newspaper the addresses of the 71 people who originally signed the recall petition. In his letter, Sutton contends that state election law requires the addresses be published. “Courts have repeatedly recognized that identifying proponents in a local newspaper before circulation of a petition is a key step in the process, which serves the important public policy interest of giving voters crucial information about the proposal,” Sutton wrote.

Hazzard declined to comment about Sutton’s claim. Thomas said the city clerk and city attorney’s offices were still reviewing the issue.

However, even though Harland’s group contends that Hazzard’s petition is incompetent, as of late last week, Harland’s group itself had yet to receive certification of its petition because it had made several paperwork errors. Among the mistakes was the misspelling of the word “circulate.” Harland’s group spelled it “ciruclate,” according to a December 30 letter that the city clerk sent to Sutton.

Neither Sutton, Harland, nor Len Raphael, the treasurer of Harland’s group, returned phone calls seeking comment for this story. For the record, Hazzard’s group calls itself the Committee to Recall Jean Quan, while Harland’s group calls itself the Committee to Recall Mayor Jean Quan Now.

For his part, Pratt said he believes that Sutton may be right about Hazzard’s petition needing to be disqualified. Pratt was originally part of Hazzard’s group, but then split off because of concerns about Hazzard’s mishandling of the petition, and formed a second group with Charles Pine and Nancy Sidebotham (who are both former city council candidates). This Pine-Pratt-Sidebotham group, however, continues to circulate Hazzard’s petition — although Pratt said he was urging his group late last week to stop doing so until the city clerk and city attorney had ruled on whether the petition should be invalidated.

Pine, by contrast, believes there’s nothing wrong with Hazzard’s petition, and instead is concerned that Harland’s group may ruin the entire recall process by having two petitions going at the same time. Although Deputy City Attorney Mark Morodomi issued an opinion last month, stating that having two petitions run simultaneously is legal, Pine contends that it’s not. He argued that Morodomi based his opinion on a 1933 state Supreme Court decision that Pine contends does not apply to the current Oakland scenario. That court ruling concerned certification of a recall petition after part of it was stolen. “The case clearly has no application as a precedent for the situation in Oakland today,” Pine said.

As for Hazzard, he contends that the copy of his petition that the Pine-Pratt-Sidebotham group is circulating is defective, because it doesn’t contain proper serial numbers, Pratt said. Pratt also said that Hazzard has threatened to ignore any signatures collected on this paperwork as a result, and will not turn in the signatures to the clerk’s office. Pratt’s group, however, disagrees with Hazzard and believes that he will ultimately need the signatures they collect. Hazzard declined to comment.

For her part, Quan also declined to comment on the numerous errors that the recall groups have made, saying that she still is taking the recalls seriously. Some of her supporters, however, contend that the mistake-laden process provides more proof for why the public should reject the petition drives. “I think the whole recall, in addition to being a serious error of judgment, is itself a comedy of errors,” said James Vann, a longtime Quan backer.

Finally, there’s one more wrinkle to the recall process that is worth noting. Sutton, the lawyer for Harland’s group, has a history of making substantial errors during elections. Last decade, the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the San Francisco Public Ethics Commission slapped him and PG&E with the largest ever fine at the time — $240,000 — for failing to report $800,000 in campaign donations that PG&E had made in 2002 to a political committee that Sutton operated. The FPPC called Sutton “negligent.”


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