A judge Tuesday blocked a recall effort against Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, giving the mayor some breathing room while his opponents figure out their next move.
Circuit Judge Jeff Hollingsworth ruled on a number of points and prevented Littlefield's recall from appearing on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Hollingsworth said state law governs the recall process locally and trumps the city's charter, meaning petitioners needed nearly 15,000 valid signatures.
About 9,000 signatures were verified by the Hamilton County Election Commission. The judge also ruled that more than 5,000 of those signatures did not count because they were not dated as required by law.
Recall opponents said the judge's decision came down to a technicality and that they received bad advice from the Hamilton County Election Commission.
Hollingsworth reminded people in the hearing that he was merely settling legal questions raised by Littlefield's suit.
"This is not about whether or not citizens have the right to recall elected officials," Hollingsworth said. "They do. That is clear under the law. This is also not about whether there are grounds to recall Mayor Littlefield. That's not for me to decide."
Hollingsworth found the city of Chattanooga did not change the number of signatures required for a recall after 1997, as required by state law; that means state law became the final word on the number of signatures needed.
Littlefield spoke with reporters after the judge's decision and said he still wants to get together with the organizers of the recall effort to patch over their differences. But one of those key differences, a recently passed 19 percent property tax increase, is something he said he does not regret.
"We had to do it to keep Chattanooga moving forward," he said.
Groups behind the recall effort said they received bad advice from the Hamilton County Election Commission. They would not say whether they would appeal. They won't have time to get more signatures to satisfy the state guidelines, according to Hamilton County Elections Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan. The deadline to get enough signatures to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot was Aug. 30.
"The mayor has successfully shut down the voice of 10,000 registered voters," said Chris Brooks, senior organizer of Chattanooga Organized for Action. "The mayor should do what's right for the city. He should resign."
Jim Folkner, head of Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, said the decision rested solely on "technicalities." An appeal would need serious discussion, he said. The attorney representing the recall petitioners, Joe Manuel, said he is doing the work pro bono.
"Right now, we'll discuss it amongst ourselves and make a rational decision," Folkner said.
Folkner also echoed claims that the Election Commission gave petitioners bad advice. Chris Clem, an attorney for the commission, said the commission "bent over backward" to help petitioners and said he told them they needed dates on the signatures.
"It turns out it was a moot point," he said. "They were 6,000 signatures short."
Hollingsworth made his decision after a day of testimony involving attorneys representing four different interests in the recall suit: Littlefield, the Hamilton County Election Commission, the city of Chattanooga and the petitioners themselves.
The courtroom was packed with media, citizens and petitioners. Littlefield sat beside his three attorneys: Hal North, the lead attorney, and Rick Hitchcock and Tom Greenholtz. Littlefield also had a hired expert witness, Certified Public Accountant Jack London, who reviewed the petitions. London reviewed which signatures did not have dates, how many contained language Littlefield's attorney deemed "incendiary" and double-checked the commission's numbers on valid and invalid signatures. Littlefield personally paid London $143 an hour for his work.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield will hold a news conference at 9 a.m. in City Hall to discuss the community moving forward after recent recall effort.
The mayor declined to say how much he spent fighting the recall effort.
After the ruling, Manuel offered further testimony about why some signatures did not have dates and said such testimony would be the basis for a possible appeal.
It is not clear what Tuesday's ruling will mean for two city councilmen targeted by recall drives: Manny Rico and Jack Benson. Mullis-Morgan said the deadline for those signatures is Oct. 8, but the question of recalling the two councilmen would not be on the November ballot. Given what happened Tuesday, she is not sure when voters would get to vote on a recall if the organizers can get the signatures. She said petitioners need to gather 588 signatures to recall Rico and 1,032 to recall Benson; as of Tuesday the commission had received 65 for Rico and six for Benson. Mullis-Morgan said she did not know if the number of signatures needed is still accurate, in light of Hollingsworth's ruling.
Rico said it's out of his hands now.
"I don't know if that ruling gets us off the hook or not," he said. "I hope it does, but I really can't worry about it."
Benson said people leading the recall efforts ought to focus their efforts on something else.
"I would think they ought to spend their time on more constructive efforts than trying to fight a windmill," he said.