In a three-part series, Joshua Whitfield recounts the challenges and experiences he had while helping organize a recall election in Hughson, California.
Recall is a powerful tool in which citizens exercise direct-democracy; allowing voters to directly hold office holders accountable for their actions. Recall is not, nor should it be, an easy path to take for those who seek to oust an official.
However, when there is no other options left on the table, and a majority of voters feel their leaders egregiously failed their responsibilities; then it is the voters’ duty to replace their elected leadership.
I ran my first and only recall campaign in 2010. It all started with a phone call from a friend who lived in the small town of Hughson, California.
Hughson is the smallest general law city in Stanislaus County. It has a population of about 6,000 people and has been a lighting rod for political controversy since I was a small child. Not your major political controversy, just the general small town, good ol’ boy politics stuff.
However, in 2010 a yearlong controversy came to a head. A perfect storm of regrettable situations plagued Hughson all at once.
The cities public works director was charged with a felony for mishandling confidential files. Accusations of sexual harassment were being made by city employees, which either directly or indirectly led to the resignation of one city council member. This allowed for Thom Crowder, a controversial four-time mayor, to be appointed to the Council. His appointment created a three-man majority that was primed to make drastic mistakes and spiral the small community of Hughson out of control.
The three-man majority, led by former mayor Crowder, included city councilmen Doug Humphreys and Ben Manley, began to show deep divisions with Mayor Ramon Bawanan and city councilmen Matt Beekman. The fighting broke out in 2009, when the majority in the council held an abrupt, emergency session of the city council in order to fire Hughson’s city manager. The plan was to install former Hughson Police Chief David Whiteside in his place.
After a tremendous public outcry, they eventually voted not to renew the city manager’s contract.
Also adding fuel to the emerging fire were “accidental tape recordings” that caught one city employee and two of the three majority-bloc councilmen speaking very unprofessionally about other employees and councilmembers.
There was a dispute about security at city hall, in which Mayor Bawanan made a unilateral decision to have the locks changed. A decision the majority of the council thought improper. Allegations and finger pointing ensued and the majority asked the Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury to investigate.
When the Civil Grand Jury finished its investigation, the grand jury found, “No wrongdoing on the part of the Mayor and others.” Furthermore, the Grand Jury found that the majority violated the Brown Act (California’s Open Meeting Law) and that Mr. Crowder used his political position in order to attempt to gain employment (an accusation Mr. Crowder consistently denied). The Grand Jury recommended that the councilmen be removed from office or that the citizens of Hughson should start a recall election.
A group of residents formed “Citizens for Better City Government” they began to become active in their local politics and they demanded the apology and resignation of the three councilmembers in the majority.
Instead of apologizing and attempting to save their seats, the three councilmen in question lashed out at the citizens group and increased their hostility to those they determined were against their position. They claimed that they were in the right and eventually the truth would come out. This is where I came in:
In late January, I went to the city council meeting and witnessed the pure lack of professionalism and consideration the embattled members of the city council showed to the Hughson Citizens who were voicing their concerns. My friend, who was associated with the Citizens for Better City Government, asked for my help.
It only took one meeting for me to make up my mind and I pursued the project. I started studying what steps had to be taken for a recall and we were off on a journey, no a battle, that would take seven long months to end.