published Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Cook: With enemies like this, who needs government?

At some point, it gets lost. We stop remembering and begin to forget.

Maybe it's the hard-to-understand legal language, with all the whereases and whereupons that can confuse and choke the life out of things like a boa constrictor.

Maybe it's ordinary life: Full of flat tires, mortgage payments and late nights that make it hard to think past our own mailboxes.

But every now and then, we've got to stand up and remind ourselves who's in charge around here and ask loudly the magnificent question: Are we going to put our faith in democracy or just pretend to?

In 2002, voters in Chattanooga adopted an updated version of the City Charter. It wasn't solely approved by the mayor, or a judge, or group of millionaires.

It was approved by the people. Because that is what happens in a democracy.

The charter contains many things, including some of the dullest sentences I've ever read, but sections 3 and 11 are works of beauty. They're fireballs, litmus tests, the line in the sand that citizens cross when they stop pretending to play PG-13, junior-varsity democracy and begin to really take things seriously.

These are the sections that allow for the recall of elected officials and the creation of initiatives (putting the ability to craft ordinances in the hands of citizens) and referendums (putting initiatives on the ballots for a popular vote).

On the agenda for next Tuesday's City Council meeting is a first reading of an ordinance that would change the process for citizen-led initiatives and referendum, dumping out the City Charter language for something that matches state law.

The ordinance proposes that the beloved sections 11.24 and 11.25 -- which deal with initiatives and referendum -- would be repealed "in their entirety" and replaced.

The charter requires an initiative petition to be signed by 25 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral election. Based on the nearly 19,000 votes cast in the 2008 mayoral election, we're talking about 4,500 or so signatures.

Doable. Reasonable. Possible.

But the new plan would defer to state law, which requires signatures from 15 percent of all registered voters in the city. That would more than triple the number of signatures. Out of more than 100,000 registered voters in Chattanooga, the initiative-petition would need more than 15,000 voter signatures.

No longer possible. Or doable. Or democratic.

Why would the council do such a thing?

Since most people can't run for public office, certain levers are kept in place -- petitions, initiatives, referendum -- that keep power flowing downward, into the hands of regular people.

Consider our city's housing crisis. Overrun by poverty and a lack of affordable housing, poor and working-class Chattanoogans are running out of options. That's why a group of citizens has started an initiative: Any demolished housing unit would have to be replaced with a new unit, in an even-Steven, one-for-one swap.

Thank God. Citizens standing up, working to change their world for the better. Who would oppose them?

Looks like their own government. The initiative is all jammed up now as government attorneys pick it to pieces, claiming it violates state zoning laws. Or wasn't filed in the right place. Or this, or that, until the thing is flatter than last year's birthday balloon.

Along the way, we lose the power of our City Charter. We lose faith in people's ability to govern themselves. Democracy becomes flat, like worn-out shoes.

And the government should be the last group responsible for this.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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bret said...

The courts and the TN Attorney General have all properly ruled that in areas of conflict between state law and a city charter, the state law trumps local law. So it makes perfect sense for the City Council to amend the charter to agree with state law. The reason the state law makes it more difficult to recall an elected official is because it SHOULD be difficult. That official was duly elected and it shouldn't be possible for a small group of people to invalidate that election simply because they don't like some of his decisions or because they don't like the color of his socks. I would like to see the charter amended with requirements for stricter reasons for recall such as committing a crime or moral turpitude.

August 29, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.
preacher said...

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, the provisions of this section shall not apply to any county having a metropolitan form of government and a population greater than one hundred thousand (100,000), according to the 2000 federal census or any subsequent federal census." Since Chattanooga metro has a population of over half a million, the state law clearly did not apply. Read the actual law next time before you post something, ok?

August 29, 2012 at 8:14 p.m.

Preach, preacher. And other guy, YOU VOTED ON THE CITY CHARTER, or had the chance to.

August 29, 2012 at 8:36 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Preacher, while you have the correct section of TCA, your interpretation of the law is not correct. You write, "Since Chattanooga metro has a population of over half a million...."

The TCA section you are referring to is Metropolitan form of government as one criteria, where a Metro Gov Charter has been adopted. Chattanooga has a corporate Charter, not a metro Charter, so the test fails on the one of two criteria.

Yes Chattanooga's municipal boundary has a population of 170,000, which is greater than the 100,000, but we do not have a Metropolitan Form of Government Charter.

I certainly hope that the Recallers did not use your interpretation of law, because it flawed and in error. Based upon the criteria, the State recall provision is applicable to Chattanooga. Sorry for the outcome, I supported the recall.

August 29, 2012 at 9:09 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Recallers brief to Appeals Court. On the other hand, it is interesting that the Mayor's attorneys have enjoyed a half million windfall in City Contracts since signing on to represent the Mayor to sue the recallers, and over 50 percent of Judge Holligsworth's campaign funds came from Littlefield's attorney firm. There were open records filed to obtain this data from the city and election commission. The TFP has reported pieces of this malfeasance.

http://recallron.com/images/files/IN%20THE%20COURT%20OF%20APPEALS%20OF%20TENNESSEE.pdf

Page 25 of 35. "The City has paid Littlefield’s firm more than $550,000 in the past two years, exclusive of any fees incurred by Littlefield in both the prior pendingaction and this action. Folkner Aff."

Heck, I admire the Recallers, can't help it.

August 29, 2012 at 11:12 p.m.
preacher said...

Hmmm, I suppose that's technically true. So, basically, if Littlefield's attempts at city/county consolidation had been more successful, he would have lost office? That's kind of ironic.

August 30, 2012 at 1:34 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Recall is over, election March 13.

August 30, 2012 at 5:40 a.m.
Lr103 said...

An even better solution would be only those who actually took the time to get off their rear ends and vote should be allowed to take part in the recalling of any elected official.

It would be interesting to know just how many of those recall signers actually took time to vote in the last mayoral election.

August 30, 2012 at 9 a.m.
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