There is a lot of conversation in the community and on social media about the recent arrest of a Riverside Councilmember for suspicion of drunken driving. I see comments like “the Council should remove her,” “she should be removed,” and “she must resign.”
Let’s discuss what remedies are available when an elected official is perceived to have done something deserving of a responding action.
Any elected official can resign and need not give a reason. Within the past few years, a Riverside councilmember did resign. However, an elected official cannot be forced to resign. As discussed below, there are circumstances in which an elected official automatically loses the right to hold an elected office. Disposition of the charges for which the councilmember was arrested will be decided in the courts.
It has been suggested that the councilmember deleted, or caused to be deleted, comments on their official City Councilmember Facebook page. An elected official may not block any individual or edit or delete comments from their government social media. To do so is considered the destruction of a public record. If the District Attorney or the State Attorney General believes there is sufficient evidence this occurred, there could be additional charges filed. In that case, the disposition of those allegations would also be decided in the courts.
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If an elected official is convicted or pleads guilty to most felonies or a “crime involving moral turpitude,” they automatically lose their office upon such conviction. The term “crime involving moral turpitude” is not well defined. A California Supreme Court decision says a crime involving moral turpitude includes crimes “extremely repugnant to accepted moral standards.” The court further said that crimes of moral turpitude show a person is ready to “do evil.” As you can see, an attempt to remove an elected official for a crime of moral turpitude could well be tied up in the courts for a protracted period of time. It is important to note that in the current case of an arrest for misdemeanor driving under the influence clearly is not a felony and in and of itself is not a reason to automatically disqualify an elected official from office.
The voters, through the recall process, can remove an elected official from office by majority vote. In the case of this Councilmember's ward, where there are about 20,500 registered voters, valid signatures from at least 20% of the voters, or about 4,100 signatures, would be required to qualify a petition for recall to be placed on the ballot. Should that happen, there would be a special election to determine whether to recall the elected official. A simple majority of votes cast would decide the question.
I am not aware of any instance in Riverside’s history where an elected official has been recalled. There have been several instances where a petition to recall was issued, and signatures were gathered, but I do not know of an instance where an actual recall election was held in the city.
The City Council can take a number of punitive actions against another council member. This includes removing them from council committee assignments, removing them from outside agency assignments such as the Riverside County Transportation Commission or the March Joint Powers Authority, denying them permission to travel at city expense, and should they happen to hold the title of Mayor Pro Tempore, removing that title. The Council can also publicly reprimand or censure one of its members. These latter actions carry no further penalty but can be taken in conjunction with any of the other actions listed above.
The City Charter provides that if a councilmember or the mayor misses three consecutive regular meetings of the City Council without permission of the council “expressed in its official minutes,” the office becomes vacant. The Charter is silent on why the Council would or would not grant permission for an elected official to be absent.
Riverside has a Code of Ethics and Conduct, which requires elected officials to abide by all federal, state, and local laws and states that it is a violation of the Code of Ethics and Conduct to be convicted of a violation of any state or federal law. Any person who lives, works, or attends school in the city may file a complaint under the Code of Ethics and Conduct.
The Code of Ethics and Conduct establishes a procedure for the City Clerk and the Board of Ethics to review and act on complaints. A finding that an official has violated the Code of Ethics and Conduct does not in and of itself carry any penalty. However, the city council can, and has, taken findings by the Board of Ethics into consideration in deciding whether to impose any sort of sanctions upon a fellow councilmember or the mayor.
In short, the city council cannot remove a member, but it can impose sanctions. Certain criminal convictions automatically disqualify a person from their office, but others do not. The Board of Ethics can find that a councilmember or the mayor has violated the Code of Ethics and Conduct, but there is no direct penalty for doing so. The voters have the right to recall an elected official with or without a stated reason.