published Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Chattanooga election officials OK same-sex repeal; attorney Chris Clem resigns amidst controversy

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    Brenda Hixson receives 1,634 signatures petitioning Chattanooga's same-sex partner benefit ordinance from Mark West, president of Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency, at the Hamilton County Election Commission on Monday, November 25, 2013.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

The Hamilton County Election Commission formalized on Monday what officials have already announced -- that petitioners gathered enough valid signatures to force the city to repeal the same-sex benefit ordinance or let the public decide in a vote next year.

The City Council is expected to vote by mid-January on whether to repeal the ordinance that extends benefits to city employee's straight and gay domestic partners, Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said. But he reiterated that he doesn't believe anyone will change their vote.

The measure was approved by a 5-3 final vote on Nov. 19, only because Councilman Larry Grohn was absent. The council's first vote was split 5-4.

"I don't see myself changing my vote," said Hakeem, who cast the tie-breaking vote.

The local conservative group, Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency, quickly organized a petition drive in protest of the vote.

Monday's action means that if the council keeps the ordinance in place, voters in the city will decide whether to approve or reject the domestic partners benefits expansion when they go to the polls in August 2014. Ballot questions for the August election must be determined by April 10, election officials said.

During Monday morning's election commission meeting to decide whether to certify the 7,755 signatures validated by the election office, the commission's attorney, Chris Clem, announced he would resign at the end of the year.

Clem's resignation comes after controversy arose during the Nov. 20 meeting over how the petition was first approved.

Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden accused officials of becoming political and ranted that state election officials asked him to plan to meet as a commission a day after the City Council approved the ordinance. The meeting had to be posted ahead of the City Council vote, which Walden said made the election commission appear biased on a controversial issue.

Walden openly chided Tea Party leader Mark West for going to the state for advice. West did so after talking with Clem to avoid a legal battle like what took place three years ago when West was involved with efforts to recall former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.

Part of the failure of the Littlefield recall was that the local elections administrator told petitioners they didn't need to date the signatures, so hundreds of signatures were later thrown out. West said this go-around he wanted to be absolutely sure he avoided any loopholes in the law and city charter.

Clem said he didn't see anything wrong with giving West advice.

After last month's meeting, Walden and Clem went behind closed doors and were heard arguing in raised voices.

Clem admitted there was a disagreement between him and Walden. But he said the argument didn't affect his decision to resign. Instead he said he wanted to get more involved in local political races. He said he has no intention to run but he would like to support multiple friends running for a Hamilton County office.

Yet Election Commissioner Jerry Summers said Clem was asked to resign or be fired, a move that Summers said he opposed.

"I don't think it's voluntary based on the last meeting," Summers told the commissioners when Clem made the announcement. "I thought you were under pressure to resign."

Chattanooga's charter and state law contradict each other in this case, another reason West asked for Clem's advice and ultimately went to the state.

The city charter states any petition to repeal an ordinance has to be completed two weeks after it's approved. But the election commission has a month to meet and approve the petition.

So State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins sent a request to Walden and said he could be accused of hindering the democratic process if he didn't approve the petition swiftly.

"The elections commission is not statutorily required to make these accommodations, but the refusal could sabotage the opportunity provided by the Charter," he wrote to Walden. "Any delay could result in legal action taken against the election commission."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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