Ann Kitchen recall petition bodes ill for Austin

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Welcome to “Groundhog Day,” Austin.

If the petition being circulated to oust Council Member Ann Kitchen has the required 4,811 signatures, Austin politics will likely become its own version of the cult classic movie. You know, where the character by Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again trying to get a different outcome.

Although exhausting, all turns out well for Murray. He, eventually, gets the girl and comes out on the other side a better person. For Austin, policy by petition and political harassment has ominous implications.

Of course, the power to recall elected representatives is an important tool as part of the checks and balances on local government. It prevents elected officials from being allowed to run amok until their term expires. However, it is a power best reserved for correcting incompetence, neglect of duties, corruption, misconduct — allowing the work of the city to continue rather than being derailed by poor or improper governance.

There are costs of course — financial and political — which is why it should only be pursued in extreme cases. The city moved its municipal election day to November in part to reduce expense and encourage greater voter participation. If the petition is submitted and certified before Feb. 19, an election will likely be called for May,

However valuable a recall election might be, it is the wrong tool for settling disagreements on policies. Although its unclear what group is behind the recall effort, it stands to reason that the petition is connected to Kitchen’s position on transportion networking companies such as Uber and Lyft.

From Statesman transportation columnist Ben Wear:

The petition, at the top, offers these grounds for sacking Kitchen, who, if not recalled, would face reelection in November 2018: “The reason for her recall is because she has purposefully hurt businesses that employ citizens of Austin.”

Pretty general. I’m guessing every council that has ever come along, in Austin or any other American city of any size, has passed ordinances that “hurt” businesses by imposing some sort of limitations on them for environmental, safety, road access, zoning or other reasons. Building codes harm businesses in this manner, as do parking requirements. Heck, any city fee on a business hurts it, and they are always done purposefully. Or should that be “purposely?” Maybe both.

Austin has always functioned best when stakeholders work together to reach consensus. This take no prisoners approach to government is much more akin to the state of affairs in Washington, D.C., where it seems to make perfect sense to vote more than 50 times to undo legislation to no effect. The method proposed by Austin4All, the nebulous group behind the Kitchen petition, is even worse, preferring to remove leaders they don’t like until they wear down the elected representative or get someone they like.

Austin has no shortage of contentious issues: environmental protection, affordable housing, development code rewrites, public safety, transportation. Resorting to a petition is a terrible way to write policy and an even worse way to choose leadership.

If it comes to a vote, hopefully Kitchen’s constituents in District 5 will take a stand and not allow her to be run out on a rail. I may not always agree with Kitchen, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to serve her term. There are plenty of ways to build consensus for change; a recall petition is not one of them.