Mayor Ron Littlefield could once more be facing a recall election.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals on Thursday threw out a lawsuit by Littlefield challenging the number of signatures on recall petitions from 2010. The Court of Appeals said a local Circuit Court judge shouldn't have stopped Hamilton County election commissioners from having a chance to certify the petitions.
"We find that the trial court acted without jurisdiction," Appellate Judge John W. McClarty's opinion stated on behalf of the three-member appeals court panel.
McClarty said it's now up to the Hamilton County Election Commission to decide whether to certify the recall petitions.
Jim Folkner, with Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, one of the groups that gathered the petition names, expressed jubilation at the court's ruling.
"The election commission will have to certify it [the recall] and set an election date," Folkner said. "At this point, Mr. Littlefield is a recalled mayor."
But Richard Beeland, the mayor's spokesman, said the issue is much fuzzier and many factors will affect whether a recall election takes place. The court "simply ruled that the election commission was entitled to make a final decision" and made no decision on the "sufficiency of the recall petition," Beeland said.
"Those issues are left to be judicially resolved another day," he said.
In the summer of 2010, the groups Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, Chattanooga Organized for Action and the Chattanooga Tea Party began a petition campaign to oust the mayor. The groups gathered more than 15,000 signatures and the election commission validated more than 9,000 of them.
Before the election commission voted to certify the results, Littlefield filed suit. In October 2010, Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollinsworth halted the recall, saying not enough signatures had been gathered under state law.
The Hamilton County Election Commission will discuss the Court of Appeals decision when it meets at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
State law dictates that more than 14,854 valid signatures be collected, while the Chattanooga city charter calls for more than 9,600.
Election commission attorney Chris Clem said Thursday the appeals court's decision did not give the commission a lot of direction. The commission will talk about the ruling at its next meeting Wednesday, he said, and decide whether to vote on the petition results in December.
The commission must decide whether to follow state law or the city charter, he said.
"I think it's possible that, whatever the election commission decides, it will be sued" by either the mayor or Folkner, Clem said.
Under state law, voters first are asked if they would like to recall the mayor. If a majority votes yes, a recall election is held.
Clem said the first recall question could appear on the March 6, 2012, county primary ballot.
Hal North, Littlefield's attorney, said he felt the court's decision was virtually a tie.
"Neither side prevailed," he said.
He said the election commission will be able to ratify the results of the petition drive but still could end up mired in another lengthy court battle.
Folkner's attorney, Frank Pinchak, said he didn't see the ruling as a tie and a dismissal of Littlefield's lawsuit was "the most we could have gotten." He expects the election commission to certify the petition results and his clients to have their day at the polls.
"I think they are ready to go on with the recall," he said.