A sudden push by Alameda County to revise its recall election rules, which date back to 1926, prompted arguments last week before the Board of Supervisors from community members both for and against the effort.
For months, community members have been asking the county how a recall election might work here, particularly as signature collection is already underway by those who hope to recall DA Pamela Price.
That analysis finally came earlier this month from the Office of the County Counsel, which says the county charter should be updated. And that can't happen without the voters' consent.
But, what some say is a simple matter of updating outdated and unrealistic charter language has already garnered anger and suspicion from community members who say the county is just trying to delay the Price recall effort by revising the rules and timeline mid-stream.
Read more about Pamela Price on The Scanner.
Adopting the state rules could change several key aspects of the recall election schedule, assuming the Price recall team collects enough valid signatures to get on the ballot.
That would give county officials more time to validate the petition signatures and more time to schedule the subsequent election.
That could potentially push the Price recall vote from June, which has been the campaign's goal, to November.
The county charter says a recall election must take place within 35-40 days of when the Board of Supervisors calls the election. State law would give the county 88 to 180 days to conduct it.
Also significant: The revisions would increase the number of signatures needed to get the Price recall on the ballot, from about 73,000 to 93,000.
Alameda County ROV says he "cannot comply" with charter
Donna Ziegler. Alameda County
On Tuesday, County Counsel Donna Ziegler asked the board to ask voters, in an election in March, to replace Alameda County's recall language — Section 62 of the county charter — with the state rules.
And, ultimately, after asking several questions, that's what the supervisors voted unanimously to do.
(The decision isn't final until a second vote, which is scheduled to take place Tuesday. But, given the unanimous decision, there was no indication last week that the final vote would be in jeopardy.)
Ziegler said there were a number of key reasons for the change.
"Most importantly," she said, this would give Registrar of Voters (ROV) Tim Dupuis "a fighting chance" to conduct a recall election "with integrity."
Dupuis, she told the board Tuesday, "has indicated that he cannot comply with the charter provisions as currently drafted."
In its legal analysis, county counsel noted that the charter gives the ROV 10 days to validate petition signatures (which is done through random sampling). That involves checking the names and addresses against the voter rolls.
"The elections official is highly unlikely to verify the signatures needed within the 10-day deadline," Ziegler wrote in her memo. "The failure to verify signatures could lead to costly litigation."
State recall rules allow 30 days to verify signatures.
Ziegler also noted Tuesday that Alameda County is the last charter county in California not to adopt the state's rules.
"This isn’t special," she told the board, of the charter amendment. "We’re sort of at the back of the line in aligning with what all the other counties in the state do."
There are 14 charter counties in California, board president Supervisor Nate Miley said.
Council officials repeatedly emphasized that the charter amendment is not about a specific candidate. But the Price recall is the only one on the horizon.
And when it came to public comments, many who spoke in favor of the charter amendment also voiced support for DA Pamela Price, while those who opposed the changes said Price should be removed.
Price recall proponents have also said the ROV already provided a timeline and guidelines, which they are following. Under those rules, they must turn in all their signatures by March 5 — the same day voters would cast ballots on the proposed charter revisions.
"It is unfair, in the middle of us getting our signatures, to say that you want to make a change," Brenda Grisham, one of the lead organizers of the recall, told the board Tuesday during public comment. "I feel that this is election interference."
Legal challenges "could come from anywhere"
Supervisors reiterated Grisham's concerns Tuesday in their questions to the county counsel.
"There is a current process underway to collect signatures and there’s a path that they’re moving forth based on information they received from the registrar of voters," said District 3 Supervisor Lena Tam. "Will this charter amendment that’s going before the voters in March affect that timing?"
"I don't know," Ziegler told her. "It’s unknown what their timing will ultimately be. So I can’t account for how this will impact it."
Ziegler continued, of the charter amendment: "If this is on the March 5 ballot and it passes, it may impact what happens next."
She noted that both the ROV and her office had "been transparent" with "individuals" about the conflicts between the charter and state law.
East County Supervisor David Haubert said he could see how a current recall effort might raise questions about having the rules changed in the midst of the work.
"At some point, we’re gonna have to be very clear with people on both sides," he said. "Either side could sue us depending on which actions we take. If we take no action, or if we take the action and we run afoul of a recall attempt that’s already in place. And so we want to avoid that."
"You’re right," Ziegler told him. "The challenges could come from anywhere."
Alameda County has already come under fire for possible election violations.
At one point Tuesday, Ziegler interrupted board comments to remind them that the county is facing litigation related to how prior elections have been conducted.
"We are gonna make sure that we dot our i’s and cross our t’s and not run afoul of any requirements," she said. "We will follow the law."
Board President Nate Miley asked Ziegler about the implications should the proposed charter amendment fail.
"I can’t predict what the full ramifications are," she said. "But, if it doesn’t pass, then the current charter provisions remain in place."
"There are problems with the charter that won’t be cured," she added.
Throughout the meeting, Ziegler was careful to keep her remarks general, particularly as the current Price recall effort has not yet qualified for the ballot.
Miley said he knew, however, that "people are gonna be wondering what they should be doing in the interim," between now and March 5, should the charter amendment appear on the ballot.
"I can’t advise people what to do in the interim," Ziegler said. "I know it’s not the interest of your board to disenfranchise anyone from taking actions that they have the right as the people to take. But, if you put this on the ballot, it means that the county will go forward with trying to have the voters approve amending the charter so that we can solve the dilemma that we have today."
County documents highlight existing recall questions
On Tuesday afternoon, Ziegler seemed to express a degree of relief that her office and the registrar of voters had published their positions on the conflicts between the county charter and state law and what, in their opinion, needs to happen now with the charter amendment.
For months, members of the public and the media have been pushing the county and state for those answers. Until the recent documents were published, there was little clarity available.
"Everyone knows the same thing. Now they do. They have the same access to information that we have," Ziegler told the board. "From my perspective, having your board take this action now solves a problem that just needs to be solved."
Charter amendments need only a simple majority, more than 50% of the vote, to pass.
One issue county counsel did not address in its written legal analysis was how the charter amendment would affect the signatures needed to get a recall on the ballot.
On Tuesday, Ziegler provided no reason for the omission.
But District 2 Supervisor Elisa Márquez asked her whether a public comment saying the signature number would change had been accurate.
"That is a true statement," Ziegler said, stopping short of explaining how or why the number would change.
Under the county charter, the petition needs signatures equalling at least 15% of the votes cast in Alameda County in the 2022 governor's race. That works out to 73,195 signatures.
Meanwhile, the state rules say the number needed works out to 10% of the registered voters for jurisdictions the size of Alameda County, which has 933,294 registered voters, according to the ROV.
Márquez also asked whether Alameda County has ever had a recall election before.
"I do not know," Ziegler said.
She noted that she would be able to answer some of the board's other questions in the BOS meeting on Tuesday.
Alameda County recall charter amendment could come before voters in March
In addition to calling for a special election on March 5, 2024, to replace the county charter recall language with the state rules, the county counsel memo from Oct. 17 sets out several different problems with the county charter.
They are described as issues of "infeasibility," missing procedures and unconstitutional provisions.
In addition to the timing issues — the 10 days allotted to verify signatures and the 35-40 day period in which to hold an election — Section 62 of the charter also says that nominees for the recalled seat must appear on the same ballot as the recall vote itself.
The memo says the charter section around this process references a state law that no longer exists, which "leaves a gap in the recall procedures and no direction for qualifying nominees."
Some of the language notes that the Board of Supervisors would appoint the replacement DA until an election could be held.
Then there are the missing procedures, on which the county charter is silent, which relate to what happens prior to petition circulation.
That appears to be less of an issue, however, as it seems Alameda County already followed the state process for the pre-circulation period for the Pamela Price recall.
The memo also notes that the charter includes unconstitutional provisions. But, again, multiple community members have pointed out that state law would automatically supersede any unconstitutional sections.
Heated public comments over county recall proposal
The recall vote did not come until almost six hours into the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
But public comment, which lasted about an hour, came early in the meeting and focused primarily on the recall charter amendment.
At least four people spoke in favor of the charter amendment, citing the higher cost of special elections and the benefit of reaching more voters during a general election.
They said it's long past time for Alameda County to update its recall rules.
"The county is moving forward and trying to be fair in this process," said Pecolia Manigo of Oakland Rising. "Because of poor governance of our Board of Supervisors and the oversight of our registrar of voters, this is an issue that we now have to address."
In her public comments, Berkeley resident Rivka Polatnik described the ongoing recall campaign against Price as undemocratic and spoke forcefully in support of the elected DA.
"I can’t believe how disgustingly politicized and hateful this whole thing has become," she said. "I can’t believe the way in which Pamela Price is being scapegoated for every social ill that she is not the cause of, that she did not create."
More than a dozen people spoke against the charter amendment or expressed concerns about crime while calling for the recall of Pamela Price.
Some said the county should give the amendment proposal to its Elections Oversight Commission rather than making a rushed decision, particularly as the deadline to qualify for the ballot, one woman said, is not until December.
Other speakers said Alameda County should not give up its autonomy and that the charter recall language could be tweaked rather than tossed altogether.
Still others said Alameda County cannot afford to put off a possible Price recall from June to November.
"We don’t have the luxury of time," said Edward Escobar. "Everything is going downhill quickly and the recall of Pamela Price needs to be expedited as soon as possible."
And some speakers said they simply did not believe the county's stance that the proposed changes have nothing to do with the Price recall effort.
County officials "in confusion from the beginning" over recall
Price recall proponents, including Brenda Grisham, said the campaign had been blindsided by the county's proposal this month.
"It just came outta nowhere," she said Sunday. "Once they posted the memo, everybody started calling me. Now we need to figure out what to do."
She said county officials had more than a month earlier this year to come up with the recall rules they gave to the campaign, and that they should not have approved the petition form and started the clock if the requirements were going to change.
"That’s not a good look. That’s not good at all," she said. "It was in confusion from the beginning."
Aside from those challenges, the recall campaign has said it is happy with how its work is going.
The campaign has not announced how many signatures it has collected, but Grisham said that work has been going "exceptionally well" — despite alleged attempts to sabotage the campaign by harassing workers, circulating an unrelated recall survey and encouraging people to sign up with fake information.
Grisham said the campaign now has more than 2,000 volunteers who want to help spread the word, and that people are holding informal grassroots sign-up events out of their own garages.
"There are all kinds of ways they’re coming up with that are very effective," she said. "We’ve swayed quite a few people with the truth."
The Alameda County registrar of voters has not responded to more than a half-dozen requests for comment by phone and email in recent months.
On Monday, the Alameda County district attorney's office said it had no comment on the subject of the county charter amendment.
The Price campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Update, Oct. 31: Alameda County Supervisor Lena Tam asked the Board of Supervisors to postpone its recall charter amendment vote to Nov. 14 to give county counsel more time to come up with a public factsheet and clarify community questions about it.
"Hearing public comments and getting a number of emails, I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there about this charter amendment," Tam said at Tuesday's board meeting.
(TBS watched part of the meeting live remotely.)
Tam said she wants to make sure there's an opportunity "to clear up some of the misunderstandings." She did not elaborate.
The Scanner has asked all the supervisors for comment and also asked county counsel about the factsheet. Stay tuned for updates.
* Watch the Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Oct. 31: Meeting agenda | Video
* Connect with the campaigns: Recall campaign — Save Alameda County | Price campaign — Protect the Win
* Mark your calendar for the March 5, 2024, election: Connect with the ROV (it's also the presidential primary)