Foes back off their push to recall mayor (2/11/1997)

S.J. Komarnitsky

Editor's note: This story was originally published February 11,1997

A recall of Mayor Sarah Palin is off the table, at least for now, according to a group calling itself Concerned Citizens for Wasilla.

The group of about 60 residents was formed Friday in response to Palin's controversial firing of Police Chief Irl Stambaugh. Members say they're concerned about the direction taken by Palin since her election last fall, and discussed a recall. But members of the group decided instead they first want to hear Palin's explanations in person. The group developed a list of 25 questions and plans to ask Palin to meet with them sometime before Feb. 21.

''In all fairness, we need to allow the mayor in her own words answer the questions we have for her,'' said Kathyrn Rounds, the group's acting chairwoman. Among the questions: Why did Palin fire the police chief if she didn't have a better person in mind? Does the city have an ethics code? Would she resign to avoid a recall? The group also wants her to clarify her goals for the city. Palin was non-committal Monday, but seemed resistant to the idea. In an interview, she described her critics as the same ''few disgruntled citizens'' who have been against her since she was elected. She has criticized Stambaugh for not supporting her administration.

''I don't remember any past mayors ... having to face a firing squad,'' she said. Palin, a former City Council member, has been under fire since she took office in October after defeating longtime Mayor John Stein. Questions immediately arose about whether the city staff, some of whom had publicly supported Stein, would stand behind her or whether she would oust her critics.

Department heads serve at the pleasure of the mayor under Wasilla's city code. The police chief, however, contends he had a contract with the city and that he could be removed only for cause. Palin counters that the contract isn't valid since it was negotiated with the previous administration.

Four months of turmoil have followed in which almost every move by Palin has been questioned, from firing the museum director to hiring a deputy administrator at a cost of $50,000 a year to a short-lived proposal to move the city's historic buildings from downtown. Critics argue the decisions are politically motivated. Palin says people voted for a change and she's only trying to streamline government.

The matter came to a head a week and a half ago when Palin sent termination letters to Stambaugh and head librarian Maryellen Emmons, accusing them of not supporting her efforts to govern the town.

A day later, she rehired Emmons, saying she felt she now had the librarian's support. Stambaugh, who was not rehired, said he plans to sue. His attorney, Bill Jermain, said Palin violated a federal civil rights law that prohibits retaliation for political activity. Late Monday, the City Council met in executive session to discuss any potential liability for the city as a result of Stambaugh's firing.

The firing spawned the meeting Friday at which Concerned Citizens for Wasilla was formed. Among the organizers was Wasilla City Council member Nick Carney, a longstanding critic of Palin. But after a brief opening statement, other residents directed the meeting.

About 70 people showed up, including some supporters of Palin. Also present in the crowd were Stein, former museum director John Cooper, and a city employee who asked not to be identified but who said she took Palin's word that employees could speak freely as long as it was on their own time.

What followed was two hours of sometimes raucous debate, which was occasionally interrupted by an incoherent man in his socks threatening to sue Carrs and the local fire marshal. Residents discussed a recall, but decided it would be more effective and less divisive to try to work with Palin.

Just forming the group may force a compromise, said Laura Miller, a member and 17-year resident of Wasilla. ''At least it will get her to pay a little more attention.'' She added, ''I don't want to start a fight if it was just miscommunication.''

By S.J. Komarnitsky
Anchorage Daily News