Statement: “No city in the state of California has a higher barrier” (to recall an official than San Diego), attorneys James P. Lough and Kenneth H. Lounsbery wrote in a July 31 request that the county grand jury issue an accusation against Mayor Bob Filner.
Determination: Mostly True
Analysis: Ousting Mayor Bob Filner isn’t easy.
Organizers must collect 101,597 signatures in as few as 39 days just to get a recall on the ballot. (That timeline could extend to as much as 99 days, depending on the circumstances.)
The challenging process at least partly inspired an unidentified San Diegan to request that the San Diego County Grand Jury investigate Filner’s involvement in two scandals and potentially boot him from office.
In a document drafted July 31, attorneys James P. Lough and Kenneth H. Lounsbery suggested San Diego’s recall process comes with more hurdles than any other city in the state. The lawyers represent the person seeking the investigation.
An effort to recall Filner has ramped up and a group of professional political operatives recently joined the team, so we decided it was worth vetting the attorneys’ claim.
To start, state law sets guidelines for recalls in municipalities. Cities like San Diego, which has its own charter or guidebook, can opt to stick with those rules or create their own.
Per state law, recall organizers in California cities with at least 100,000 residents generally must gather signatures from 10 percent of registered voters within 160 days to get their request to oust a public official on the ballot.
California has 482 cities, many of which don’t post city documents online, so we couldn’t review each city’s recall rules. Instead we decided to focus on the state’s 10 most populous cities because the number of required signatures and the general constraints associated with a recall effort would presumably be more similar than requirements for smaller municipalities.
Each of these top 10 cities are so-called charter cities, meaning they can make their own rules. Still, the majority decided to follow state law.
San Diego, Los Angeles and San Jose are the notable outliers.
San Diego and Los Angeles require signatures from at least 15 percent of registered voters to qualify a recall for the ballot; San Jose requires signatures from 12 percent of voters.
San Diego differs most dramatically from other top 10 cities when it comes to the amount of time recall organizers have to collect signatures.
While most allow 160 days to gather signatures, San Diego recall organizers are only guaranteed a 39-day window. Los Angeles residents get 120 days.
Unlike other cities, San Diego’s recall rules don’t clearly state the number of days signatures can be gathered. The actual number of days depends on circumstance.
After the 39-day clock stops, the city clerk has 30 days to verify the signatures recall organizers turn in. This could mean another 30 days to gather signatures. And if the clerk’s office takes the month to verify the signatures and determines there aren’t enough valid ones, it could result in another 30-day extension.
This means organizers could get 99 days to review signatures, still a far shorter time window than other major cities in California.
But does it mean San Diego has a higher barrier to recall than any other city in California, as the lawyers claimed?
Berkeley, a city of nearly 113,000, requires that at least 25 percent of registered voters sign a recall petition within 75 days to get a recall on the ballot and state law dictates even more stringent rules for smaller cities.
Cities with fewer than 1,000 residents, for example, must gather signatures from 30 percent of registered voters within 40 days, per state law.
But size matters: Even if every Berkeley resident was registered to vote, recall organizers would still only have to submit about 28,000 signatures to get a recall on the ballot. A small town with only 750 registered voters would only require 225 signatures.
San Diego’s rules mean that because the city has more than 670,000 registered voters, organizers need just shy of 101,600 valid signatures to get a recall on the ballot.
Lough, one of the attorneys who wrote the grand jury request, argued there are other roadblocks for organizers.
In an email to Voice of San Diego, he cited one provision that requires signature-gatherers to be San Diego residents, and another that’s been dubbed unconstitutional.
Lough admitted he hadn’t specifically researched whether San Diego’s recall rules are most stringent in the state but said he relied on 30 years of experience handling election cases in local government when making his case in the filing. (He’s currently city attorney in Lemon Grove.)
It’s clear, however, that San Diego has a higher barrier to recall than the state’s other most populous cities.
We dub a statement mostly true when it’s accurate but there is an important nuance to consider. In this case, we can simply confirm that San Diego’s recall rules are more stringent than those in comparable cities.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.