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State Organization Asks Legislature To Clarify Recall Process

Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO


This week, KUCB has been reporting on the allegations against Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty and how recall elections work.

Currently, state law dictates city clerks evaluate recall petitions, but they don’t have to prove the charges actually occurred. This means elected officials can be recalled simply because the voters don’t like them.

But one state organization says the process isn’t clear enough, and they’re asking the Legislature to get involved.

Kathie Wasserman is executive director of the Alaska Municipal League (AML). Recently, she said the state has seen an increase in the number of local recall efforts.

“Heck, I’ve been in this job 15 years, and there have been very few. But last year, there were three alone," said Wasserman. "It’s kind of risen up to the point where it’s something where you need to do something.”

Last summer, three city councilors in Homer survived a recall election. Two months later, a trio on the Haines Assembly did the same. In November, Cordova City Councilor Josh Hallquist lost his seat.

There also was a failed attempt at recalling four Petersburg borough assembly members in July.

Wasserman isn’t sure why there have been more recalls, but she said it could be related to increasingly partisan politics.

With so many recalls happening, she said it’s time the Alaska Legislature clarified the recall process -- something it was asked to do in 1984.

“The Supreme Court said to the Legislature: ‘You need to narrow these definitions down so the municipalities know how to operate this,’” said Wasserman. “The Legislature, for whatever reason, has never gone back and done that. So we're just coming back and saying, ‘Come on, help us out here.’”

Under current law, recall petitioners don’t have to prove their allegations are true. Neither does the city clerk. The only thing the clerk has to demonstrate is that if an allegation were true, it would be sufficient grounds for recall.

Wasserman said that’s a thorny task to put before local officials, especially with such high stakes.

“You’re asking the city clerk to be the judge and jury -- before things have even started -- [and decide] whether a person should be recalled based on very vague definitions," she said. “That’s all we want changed.”

She said AML has passed a resolution asking the Legislature to review the standards for municipal recalls and clarify definitions.

For example, Wasserman said recalls usually center on allegations of misconduct in office, but state law doesn’t actually define “misconduct.”

“What it has boiled down to is a city clerk -- who is usually not a legal person -- having to make a call on whether misconduct in office has really occurred,” she said.

Wasserman said the goal isn’t to make filing recall petitions more difficult for the public. It’s to make it easier for city clerks to rule on them correctly.

Unalaska Clerk Marjie Veeder had no comment on AML’s effort to clarify recalls, although she accepted help from the city attorney to navigate the process.

As the subject of a recall effort, Mayor Frank Kelty agrees the process needs clarification. He even voted for the AML resolution.

“They need to take a look at [recall standards] because reputations are being ruined," said Kelty. “My reputation has been tarnished, and I don't think that's right [after] the 40 years of service I've given to the community, especially when I haven't done anything that warrants it.”

In addition to being mayor, Kelty sits on the school board, chairs the local fish and game advisory committee, and serves on multiple statewide organizations. He also had prior stints on the Unalaska City Council and as mayor.

Kelty said the accusations have hurt him so much, his family has advised him to quit investing time in the community. But he’s not ready to give up just yet.

“I'm so proud to take people around and show them our schools and the [fishing] industry that I was a part of for 35 years -- how it's grown and how Unalaska is world-renowned. Not just for ‘Deadliest Catch,’ but for our schools and the quality of life in our community," said Kelty. "So it's hard to tear that it away and just say, ‘I'm walking away from all of this.’ I probably couldn't do it.”

Kelty hopes Unalaskans won’t give up on him either. As the recall election nears, Kelty said his door is open and he’s willing to talk with undecided voters, even if they stop him in the grocery store.

The recall election is scheduled for March 6.

This story was part three of our series on Unalaska’s upcoming recall election. In the final part, we’ll bring you more on a surprise cost of the recall.

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.
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