BARNSTABLE — The latest effort to add a provision to the Barnstable County charter allowing for the recall of a county commissioner has failed, after not securing the support of a single county commissioner at a vote on Jan. 11.
The Assembly of Delegates, which is made up of one representative from each of the 15 towns in the county, had passed an ordinance petitioning the state legislature to allow the charter amendment. That petition required the support of the county commission to move forward, however, and commissioners Sheila Lyons and Ron Bergstrom voted against it. Commission Chair Mark Forest, after raising several concerns, ultimately abstained from the vote.
Assembly members serve for two years while commissioners serve for four. They are all chosen at regular state elections, which take place in November of even-numbered years. In presidential election years, two of the three commission seats are elected at the same time, with all the candidates appearing in one contest, and each voter can pick two.
This type of ballot has often confused voters. In 2016, more than a third of Barnstable County voters did not vote for two candidates, and Republican Ron Beaty, who served time in federal prison for sending death threats to President George H.W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, was elected to the second seat.
In 2018, Beaty’s social media posts criticizing a teenager who had survived the Parkland, Fla. school shooting prompted a public outcry for his removal. It was then discovered that the county charter did not have a recall provision for commissioners. Beaty served the rest of his term on the commission and lost his re-election bid in November 2020 to Lyons and Forest in the pick-two race. He then ran again for the other commission seat in 2022 and lost to Bergstrom.
In 2020, both the state House and Senate passed a bill that would have allowed voters to recall Barnstable County commissioners, but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed it in January 2021 on technical grounds. State reps. Sarah Peake and Randy Hunt and state sens. Julian Cyr and Susan Moran had all supported that legislation.
Brian Riley, an attorney from KP Law, explained the governor’s veto to the commissioners at their Jan. 11 meeting, saying there had been a lot of “back and forth” between the state Elections Division and attorney Robert Troy, counsel for the Assembly of Delegates.
“I think the Elections Division talked to the governor’s office and said, ‘There’s still a lot of issues we have with this,’ so the governor vetoed it,” Riley said.
The procedural issues included who would gather the recall signatures, who would certify them, and how the subject of the recall should be notified, Riley said.
Riley said he thought the Assembly’s newly drafted petition had addressed those issues.
Many of the cities and towns KP Law represents have recall provisions, but “this one is more complicated since you’re dealing with a large number of towns, and so there needs to be some sort of unique process for how these things get circulated, who approves them, and that kind of thing,” Riley said.
If the legislature and governor were to sign off on this latest recall provision, it would still have to be approved by voters in the 15 towns to be inserted in the county charter.
Included in the Assembly’s new recall provision is the requirement that a new commissioner would need to have served for at least one year before a recall could commence. Grounds for recall would include malfeasance, misconduct, neglect of duty, or inability to perform official duties. The affidavit to initiate the recall would have to include at least 120 signatures with no less than 20 each from five different towns.
The next step would be to gather signatures from 3 percent of the registered voters in the county, or about 5,500 people. Those would have to include at least 50 signatures from each of the 15 towns.
If those steps are successfully completed, the subject of the recall could choose to resign. If he or she did not, the recall question would be placed on the next state election ballot.
“It’s rare that a recall effort gets off the ground and even more rare that it actually makes it onto a ballot,” Riley said.
Forest asked Riley if all the sticking points that prompted the veto in 2021 had been addressed. Riley said he believed the major ones had been. Forest then asked whether the Elections Division had weighed in on the latest proposal.
“Our office didn’t have contact with them,” Riley said, “and I don’t know if the Assembly took any action like that.”
“I’m just trying to understand what things we know and what we don’t know,” Forest said.
Bergstrom said the time frame made the provision ineffectual. “Let’s say I just got elected and did something terrible,” he said. “Then you’d have to wait a year, and they could put it on the ballot two years from now.”
Lyons repeated the opinion she had given to the Assembly earlier this month – that voters need to pay attention to elections and make sure they vote. They have the ability to remove unfit candidates during the next regular election, she said.
“When you have a bad apple, the community recognizes it and mobilizes and corrects that mistake, and I think that is really the way the system is set up,” Lyons told the Assembly.
Delegate Mary Chaffee of Brewster told Lyons the Assembly had originally taken up the recall issue because “the community asked for it.”
Because the proposal did not win the support of the commissioners on Jan. 11, the bill cannot be filed at the state legislature before a key deadline on Jan. 20. The Assembly could still attempt to make changes and win the commission’s support, but bills submitted after Jan. 20 require a two-thirds vote of both the state House and Senate to receive a bill number and move forward.