Judge will rule Monday on Chattanooga domestic partners benefits ballot dispute

Judge will rule Monday on Chattanooga domestic partners benefits ballot dispute

July 4th, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Chattanooga City Hall

Chattanooga City Hall

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

A judge will decide Monday whether to issue a temporary restraining order allowing Chattanooga to trump the Hamilton County Election Commission in the wording of ballot referendum on the city's domestic partner ordinance.

But Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge W. Neil Thomas III said he'll do it first thing, so the loser has time to file an emergency petition with an appeals court before the noon deadline to start printing ballots for the Aug. 7 election.

Thomas heard an hour and a half of arguments Thursday afternoon from four parties -- Chattanooga police Lt. Corliss Cooper and the city vs. the Hamilton County Election Commission and the Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency.

The argument is over who gets to write a question on the Aug. 7 ballot asking Chattanooga voters whether the city should provide benefits to domestic partners of city employees.

Cooper and the city argued that the City Charter allows the city attorney to write a summary of the ordinance on the ballot so voters know more about what they're voting on.

The Election Commission and CGAT said state election law trumps the charter, and that law says the people who sponsored the petition get to write the question for the ballot.

Two different ballots already have been sent out to 16 absentee voters, one with the city's summary and a later one with CGAT's wording and a letter of explanation.

Thomas seemed concerned that if the Aug. 7 referendum came down to 16 votes, would those already-mailed ballots come into question?

But he paused on that matter to deal with the immediate issue -- what's going to be on the ballot when the 45,000 copies begin printing Monday at noon?

Thomas and the attorneys will be in his courtroom at 8 a.m. Monday and he will issue his order. The Election Commission had called an emergency meeting for the same time in the courthouse, but will now await the judge's order before acting.

Stevie Phillips, Cooper's attorney, told Thomas that upholding the commission's view could lead to some "pretty absurd results" if petitioners wrote nonsensical questions.

CGAT attorney Stephen Duggins called Phillips' position a "red herring" because the Election Commission ultimately must vote to approve the ballot.

The hearing also revealed where a mistake may have occurred.

CGAT and the commission said the actual language from the November petition was set to be on the ballot, until the election commission staff asked for an ordinance summary from the city attorney, as is common with a city-led referendum.

But election commissioner Chris Clem said the summary was added by election staff as an "oversight."

When presented with the ballot, Clem said the commission approved it, but, "We didn't read the question."

After the first absentee ballot printing and mailout, CGAT members contacted Taylor on June 25. The commission notified local media of an emergency meeting on June 27. That's when the wording was changed back to the original petition language, according to court documents.

Three days later, the next business day after that Friday meeting, Cooper filed her lawsuit, followed by the city's lawsuit filed Wednesday.

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