This week, Terrebonne voters exercised one of Oregon’s basic democratic rights.
Frustrated by what they saw as a lack of transparency from the Terrebonne Domestic Water District’s board of directors, which hit 50 customers with higher-than-normal water bills last summer, voters recalled board members Kay Walters and Sharon Struck on Tuesday. The recall forces Walters and Struck to bow out from their elected positions within the next two weeks.
It marked Deschutes County’s first successful recall in 12 years. But the county has a history of recall attempts that have targeted city councilors, county commissioners, school board members and judges over the past 50 years.
The county has seen at least 12 recalls advance to the ballots since 1967, a review of county election results shows. Half of them led to elected officials’ removal from office.
In the recalls, voters vented frustrations on a wide range of issues, from general dishonesty to concerns over how local leaders have managed growth.
In 1967, a Deschutes County group called Citizens for Honest Government tried to recall a county commissioner and judge. The group claimed the officials were restricting citizens’ property rights by creating ordinances restricting certain development on private land.
That recall failed, as did a recall effort against two county commissioners in 1979.
But from 1980 to 2002, the county saw nine recall attempts, five of them successful.
Across Oregon, private property issues have sparked hundreds of local recall pushes, said Jim Moore, a political science professor and government director for the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
Moore has studied local politics in Oregon for 25 years. Speaking Thursday, he said three factors have generally spurred local recalls since the state first allowed them in 1908.
Uncertainty over the direction of the economy, debates over hot-button issues such as gun control, and an anti-government culture in rural areas often prompt Oregonians to take their political discontent to the ballot box.
“These recall elections pop up when you have policies that push the electorate,” Moore said. “And there’s a culture in parts of Oregon that says, ‘If you’re not doing the right things (politically), you must be a crook.’”
Recalls were especially common in Southern Oregon counties during the 1980s, Moore said. An economic recession and new environmental regulations crippled industry in timber-dependent counties. Conflicts between loggers and environmentalists prompted waves of recalls in communities throughout Douglas, Josephine, Jackson and Klamath counties.
In Deschutes County, though, recalls seemed to center on individual conflicts rather than larger debates about the direction of the county.
In 1988, Deschutes County voters recalled all six members of Administrative School District 1, now Bend-La Pine Schools. Voters said the board was “disregarding student needs” by approving new employee contracts that included pay raises for administrators, according to election ballots from that year.
The next year, Redmond voters tried to recall the town’s six-member school board. They complained about a “loss of public trust and confidence” that heightened misunderstandings in the community over a proposed school levy, which was voted down. None of the board members was recalled, however.
The recall climate seemed to ebb in the 1990s, as the economy gained steam. Phil Keisling was Oregon secretary of state from 1991 to 1999 and now serves as director of the Center for Public Service at the Mark Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.
In an email to The Bulletin on Thursday, Keisling said recalls “were quite rare” during his time in office.
“In the last decade, though, I know it’s gotten a good deal more common,” he wrote.
Deschutes County recalls in the 1990s mostly targeted officeholders on small committees. Two members of the Crooked River Ranch Rural Fire Protection District were recalled in 1994, and another rural fire recall failed in 1998.
But that same year, a Sisters city councilor was recalled after voting against a grant to build a sewer system in town.
Before this week’s Terrebonne water recall, the last attempts in Deschutes County were in 2002. Two La Pine Rural Fire Protection District board members were recalled for “unethical handling” of a board meeting the previous year.
Another recall effort, against four members of the Bend Park & Recreation District, failed that year.
Today’s political climate isn’t entirely different from the 1980s, Moore said. Many of the same rural areas that clashed over environmental policies are now sparring about the size and role of government, echoing some of the national rallying cries of groups such as the tea party.
Five of the last six Klamath County commissioners have faced unsuccessful recall efforts, and a Josephine County commissioner was recalled in 2011. Curry County voters tried to recall two county commissioners last year but didn’t collect enough signatures to force a vote.
Deschutes County’s economic growth has set it further apart from Southern Oregon counties, Moore said. As a result, future recalls are more likely to be over specific issues than general anger about the direction of the county, he said.
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