LONG BEACH - It has been more than 40 years since voters said yes to holding a recall election in Long Beach. Since the bid to recall Councilman James Johnson was launched last week, the politically rare effort has been veiled in secrecy.
Though little has been revealed publicly about where anti-Johnson forces expect to get their support, any serious campaign effort is likely to be politically nasty - and financially expensive.
"They're very difficult to mount, and while the threshold to getting a recall petition going is low, the hurdle to complete it is very high," said political consultant Jeff Adler.
The Recall James Johnson Committee on Wednesday announced its case against Johnson, elected in June 2010 after defeating incumbent Tonia Reyes Uranga, who ran for a third term as a write-in candidate.
Among other charges, they said Johnson has failed to communicate with constituents, improperly furthered his political agenda during redistricting this year, endangered constituents by voting this month with other council members to cut the public safety budget, and failed to protect resident health and safety concerns regarding the Port of Long Beach and expansions of the Long Beach (710) Freeway and rail yards in West Long Beach.
Last week, the councilman stood by his record and cited his work to bring businesses and green space to his park-starved district. He has also requested a "zero-emissions" option in the environmental impact report of the $300 million Intermodal Container Transfer Facility expansion project.
"Everyone has their right to their opinion," Johnson said of his detractors.
In Long Beach, recall petition circulators are required to obtain the signatures of 20 percent of registered voters at the county's last tabulation.
During the February count, there were 26,206 voters in the 7th District, which includes parts of the Westside, Wrigley, California Heights and Bixby Highlands.
Mike Kowal, whose 2012 council bid was derailed when Johnson's redistricting proposal moved his home from the 8th District to 7th District, has acted as spokesman for recall backers.
He said last week that a professional service would be used to gather what figures to be the signatures of 5,242 voters in a 120-day time period, once the petition language is approved.
Adler estimated that a professional petition drive could cost supporters between $2 and $10 per signature.
"Unless there is an impassioned issue, getting 5,300 signatures is very difficult," said Adler, who pointed to malfeasance discovered recently in Vernon as an example of such an issue.
Costly to city
A recall would cost cash-strapped Long Beach, too.
On Friday, City Clerk Larry Herrera upped an earlier estimate of such an election's cost to about $187,000.
Long Beach elected officials last faced a recall election in 1970, when councilmen Bert Bond, Paul Deats, E.F. Cruchley and Russell Rubley were put up for recall for alleged transgressions similar to those brought against Johnson.
According to the ballot, the four were accused of failing to represent the will and best interests of the electorate, failing to communicate with their constituencies, kowtowing to special interests and not exercising proper integrity in office.
Rubley, in his statement of response, accused the "ringleaders" of an "insidious attack" in an effort to "capture the entire city government." Voters decided not to recall the four men.
Coincidentally, Deats' son, John R. Deats, counts himself among the present-day recall supporters and signed the notice of intent to circulate petitions against Johnson.
Deats, a Los Cerritos resident and former Public Safety Advisory Committee member, supported and even contributed to Johnson's election last year.
"James, quite candidly, talked the better game about putting the kibosh on railroad expansions," said Deats, 68.
"And he talked a better game about making sure we don't have elevated truck lanes on the western edge of my neighborhood," continued Deats.
Deats also claimed that it was a conflict of interest for Johnson, an attorney, to take a job at Manatt, Phelps and Phillips LLP, a Los Angeles firm involved in port expansions. Johnson has said he won't vote on work-related matters that come before Long Beach City Council.
Support under wraps
Recall supporters have declined to reveal who will finance their campaign or what groups will favor it, referring to a "long and arduous process."
Some recall opponents who are happy with Johnson's representation suspect that Kowal, or even Reyes Uranga, would be only too happy to step into a void left by Johnson.
Reyes Uranga denied she is involved in the recall.
"I guess it's easy to point fingers at one person instead of looking at a history of lack of communication on decisions of the councilman," Reyes Uranga said, pointing to the split of West Long Beach residents in redistricting.
Still, Reyes Uranga didn't exactly rule out running, if it comes to that.
"That's a big if," she said. "At this time, I'm enjoying the nonpolitical life."
Past City recalls
March 15, 1921: Voters fail to remove Public Safety Commissioner William M. Peek.
Nov. 29, 1922: Voters recall City Manager Charles E. Hewes.
July 11, 1929: Councilmen N.H. Alexander and E.L. Taylor are recalled after they do not accept residents' choice for a vacant council seat, as expressed in a petition signed by more than 1,400 people. At the time, council vacancies were filled by appointment.
April 5, 1932: Voters act to recall the city attorney, city manager, mayor and eight members of the council for, among other charges, allegedly violating the city charter by spending several hundred thousand dollars on a contract to remove railroad tracks, raising taxes, and causing a reduction of oil derrick and pipeline permits. The officials survived.
July 10, 1934: The city attorney and nine council members are recalled for "incompetency, mismanagement, misuse of public funds, carelessness and disregard for the rights of electors."
June 7, 1935: The city attorney and nine council members avoid recall. Proponents charge favoritism in appointments to office and administration along with a burdensome reliance on lower-income taxpayers rather than "vested interests" to fill the "public treasury."
Dec. 15, 1970: Four on council aren't recalled after being accused of failing to represent the will and best interests of the electorate, failing to communicate with their constituencies, kowtowing to special interests and not exercising proper integrity in office.
Source: Long Beach City Clerk records