Court actions may linger in ballot debate over benefits for Chattanooga workers' domestic partners

Court actions may linger in ballot debate over benefits for Chattanooga workers' domestic partners

July 3rd, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Chattanooga City Hall

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Document: Cooper vs. election commission

Document: Verified Complaint

What: Meeting of the Hamilton County Election Commission regarding the Aug. 7 ballot question on domestic partner benefits for City of Chattanooga employees

When: 8 a.m. July 7

Where: Hamilton County Courthouse, Room 120, 625 Georgia Ave.

Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency wording:

Shall the City of Chattanooga's 'domestic partnership' ordinance (Ordinance No. 12781) be adopted?

For the Ordinance providing for the extension of benefits in domestic partnerships and adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the city's nondiscrimination policy.

Against the Ordinance providing for the extension of benefits in domestic partnerships and adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the city's nondiscrimination policy.

City of Chattanooga wording:

Shall Ordinance No. 12781 go into effect or become operative to amend the City Code of the City of Chattanooga so as to (1) ensure that city employees are also afforded equal protection against harassment and discrimination because of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression; and to (2) provide certain medical and leave benefits to a qualified domestic partner of City employees? A qualified domestic partner is a person who states under oath they have resided with the City employee for at least 365 days; the City employee and domestic partner are in a non-platonic and committed relationship of mutual caring; neither the City employee nor the domestic partner has a spouse as recognized under Tennessee law; the City employee and domestic partner have joint financial and credit responsibilities; and the City employee and domestic partner are not related to a degree of kinship that would otherwise prevent marriage under Tennessee law. A referendum on this ordinance is required pursuant to Section 11.25 of the Chattanooga City Charter.

Source: Court documents

Round 4 of the fight how to word a ballot question regarding benefits for Chattanooga city employees' domestic partners is set for 8 a.m. Monday -- just four hours before the ballots are supposed to be printed.

But even if the language is settled, the question could linger beyond the Aug. 7 election, given a flurry of court filings by four parties involved in the referendum.

Hamilton County election commissioners will hold an emergency meeting Monday -- their second in less than two weeks -- to try to clear up disputes about the wording of the citywide referendum.

And this morning, a Circuit Court judge will be assigned to handle lawsuits filed this week by a city employee and Chattanooga, who object to language the election commission adopted last week for the referendum. The judge could grant an attorney's request for a restraining order or injunction to stop the ballots from being printed, but courthouse sources say that is unlikely.

At issue is who decides how the question is written.

Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency started the petition drive in November after the City Council passed an ordinance granting benefits to domestic partners.

The election commission approved the wording of the question and certified that CGAT gathered enough signatures to get it on the ballot. Now commissioners and the CGAT say state law overrides the city charter and requires the petitioner to write the language.

Chattanooga police Lt. Corliss Cooper and the city of Chattanooga say the city charter requires the city approve the language of ballot referendums, which the state law does not address.

In June, the election commission sent the proposed ballot language to the Chattanooga City Attorney's office for review, as is common with city-led referendum.

Assistant City Attorney Phil Noblett found the wording "slanted" and submitted a re-written and more detailed question June 12 to the election commission. That wording was sent to the printer, but on June 25, CGAT members cried foul and contacted the election commission.

Commissioners held an emergency meeting June 27 and voted to use the original petition language. Monday, Cooper and her domestic partner, Robin Smith, filed a lawsuit, and the city joined them with its own suit Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, CGAT filed a motion to intervene in the Cooper lawsuit on the side of the election commission.

Election Administrator Kerry Steelman paused printing of the Chattanooga ballots, but said the deadline is noon Monday if the ballots are to be ready for testing before mail-outs and early voting.

There are 90,000 ballots to be printed, about half bearing the referendum question.

Representatives met Wednesday with Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth and called for the emergency meeting this coming Monday.

CGAT President Mark West said Noblett is wrong about the language. He said the attorney is confusing "ordinance" with "question" and the state law clearly says the petitioner writes the question. Noblett's rewritten ballot wording summarizes the ordinance along with the question.

In court filings and the June 27 meeting audio recording, Noblett said the city's intent is to make the ordinance more clear for voters.

But West said the legal wording is "convoluted."

"He has misled the council," West said Wednesday. "I think it's intentional."

"My only concern is that the judge follow the law," West said. "The law is very clear on what is to be done here."

Both West and Clem separately criticized the nearly seven-month window that has passed since the ballot language was approved and changes by the city in recent weeks.

"I'm a little perplexed why they didn't object in November," Clem said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter@tsouthCTFP.