Nebraska considers kicking its habit of recall elections

Nebraska's habit of booting mayors and county commissioners out of office before their terms end could be in jeopardy under an unusual proposal that would end the state's status as one as one of the nation's most prolific users of recall elections

Voters have attempted to oust local officials at least 45 times since 2008 — proportionally more than Arizona, California and other states where voters can recall their elected leaders, an analysis by The Associated Press shows. Nebraska ranks sixth nationally in the number of recall elections held over the last decade, adjusting for the state's small population.

That could change this year under a bill in the Legislature that would abolish recall elections. Sen. Curt Friesen, a former mayor, said he introduced it because he believes activists are using recall campaigns to retaliate against officials who make decisions they oppose.

"It's getting to the point that I think it's going to be difficult to get people to run for elected offices," Friesen said. "Every time you make a decision, you're going to be looking over your shoulder."

Nebraska doesn't require any specific grounds for a recall campaign, like 16 other states. Some states only allow recalls for officials accused of neglect, incompetence or unethical behavior. Friesen said he was open to changing the bill so recall elections could only take place for specific reasons.

Recalls in Nebraska are initiated through petition drives. With a few exceptions, circulators usually must gather voter signatures equal to at least 35 percent of the total votes cast for the targeted office in the last election.

Friesen said his bill was inspired by a successful recall campaign against Hamilton County Commissioner Gregg Kremer, who faced intense criticism from local union officials for leading an effort to end the county's management of a local ambulance service. Kremer lost his seat on Tuesday.

Aurora resident Tanner Greenough, a former Hamilton County paramedic, alleged in the campaign that Kremer was biased in favor of privatizing the service even though the public didn't want it to be done. Kremer said the recall effort was a personal attack.

In the nearby city of York, Mayor Orval Stahr was also ousted Tuesday in a recall campaign that accused him of violating the trust of city department heads and neglecting the city's interests.

Stahr denied the accusations. York city officials have been struggling with a major budget crisis that led to tax increases and cuts in services.

Nebraska is one of at least 29 states that allow voters to recall local elected officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wendy Underhill, the group's elections and redistricting director, said none in recent memory have tried to abolish recall elections.

"It is unusual for a state to consider making a change," she said.

The Nebraska bill's prospects are unclear. Some lawmakers said they oppose it because voters should be able to recall elected officials as they see fit.

"If people are unhappy, it gives them an avenue to express their unhappiness," said state Sen. Carol Blood, a former Bellevue City Council member.

Kent Bernbeck, an Omaha businessman and petition-drive activist, said voters should have the right to recall elected officials if they can get enough signatures.

"There are times when somebody steps out of line with policy," he said.

Friesen said senators should allow themselves to be recalled if they believe in the process. Nebraska's law applies to local officials such as mayors, city councilors and school board members, but lawmakers have exempted themselves and other statewide officeholders.

"When you recall good people who are trying to do the right thing, you hurt the system," he said.


Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at