During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century—you know, the period that right-wingers blame for all of the regulations that have made any of their financial success and good health possible—reformers introduced the idea of a recall. The theory being, if an elected official was corrupt or inept or just plain stupid, voters could get a petition drive going, round up signatures, and rid themselves of their problem.
Two recall drives are circulating in Southern Nevada. They speak to what is right about the recall system—and what is wrong with it.
A group that includes several longtime local activists is making its second attempt to gather enough signatures to force a recall election for Steve Ross, the Las Vegas councilman. If you go to TossRoss.com, it details the pay raise he accepted for his city duties after saying he wouldn’t do that, his vote on a controversial casino and his ethics issues. All well and good and one of the key figures here, Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, has been battling Ross for several years. Before that, she trained her sights on Erin Kenny, one of the four county commissioners who wound up going to federal prison for involvement in a bribery scandal involving strip club owner Michael Galardi.
But another major objection to Ross is a tiff with car dealer Joe Scala, who sought a waiver to allow his classic cars to be sold at Courtesy Auto Group, an auto mall for new cars. As a result, the business closed, resulting in more than two dozen layoffs—and Scala contributing $10,000 to the recall effort.
The other recall effort targets Mayor Shari Buck of North Las Vegas. Its leader, Bob Borgerson, is a North Las Vegas resident who also targeted a previous council member more than a decade ago. Borgerson cites Buck’s relations with the police and firefighter unions, renovations to her office before the office is moving to an imposing new building on Las Vegas Boulevard North, and her role in the departure of a former city manager who received a nearly $350,000 severance package.
On the one hand, this is what the recall should be. Citizens are working to remove elected officials they consider inattentive to their community’s needs, or guilty of questionable actions.
On the other hand, recalls weren’t intended for businesspeople to use them to avenge adverse decisions. Not that that is what is happening here. But the appearance of that possibility exists, and therein lays a problem and a tale.
The problem is that the recall was supposed to enable the average voter to effect change. The tale is that most recall efforts around here have, historically, gone the other way.
Buck’s city, North Las Vegas, was the home of another recall in 1976. The police union campaigned to rid the City Council of the three-member majority who had opposed raises and higher budgets, and succeeded. Borgerson is unhappy with the union’s power, but that recall, lo those many years ago, helped establish that union as one not to be trifled with.
In the late 1990s, Sheldon Adelson, the Venetian owner who is at the courthouse more than some judges, was upset with Yvonne Atkinson Gates, a county commissioner he felt had tried to strong-arm him. That Atkinson Gates was a Democrat close to the Culinary Union did nothing to endear her to Adelson, who likes neither Democrats nor unions. He funded a recall effort that paid volunteers per signature they obtained.
That isn’t quite what the progressives intended. But they also didn’t intend for Ross to head a construction union while sitting on a city council, or Buck to back dubious deals involving a city manager.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.