Recall battle moves to court

Recall battle moves to court

September 1st, 2010 in Opinion Times

The deadline Monday for the last signatures gathered by the three groups pushing for recall elections ended just the first phase of the initiative. The second act opened predictably Tuesday when Mayor Ron Littlefield finally issued his response - a blunt letter chastising the recall proponents and their signature-collection methods, and a lawsuit that seeks to bar the Election Commission from staging a potentially mismanaged recall initiative. Now, it's up to Circuit Court to decide whether a recall election actually will be held and, if so, under what law and what terms.

Questions abound, and understandably so. The legal path to a recall has a lot of trip wires that could derail the process.

Foremost is whether state law or the city charter controls a recall. If state law prevails, the proponents would need more than 15,000 qualified signatures, not just 9,000, to gain a recall. It now appears that recall advocates do not possess the 15,000 qualified-signature margin.

If they do, the next question is whether the Election Commission correctly administered and vetted the form and date of the recall petition(s) and the voters' signatures and signing dates to meet the legal standards necessary for a recall to proceed. The mayor's lawsuit charges the commission with mishandling oversight of the recall process and time-frame at virtually every step.

If the Election Commission has properly done its job and the petitions and voter signatures meet legal requirements for a recall vote to occur under state law, the vote on Nov. 2 would be simply a yes-no referendum on whether to hold a recall election. If the answer is yes, the city would have to finance a subsequent separate citywide election to fill the recalled seat, or seats. Candidates then would file qualifying petitions and campaign quickly for the post against Mayor Littlefield, who already has committed to run again in that event.

If the city charter rules, if the Election Commission properly did its job, and if the petitions and signatures meet recall criteria, a recall election may proceed under charter rules. In that case, there would not be a yes-no referendum. The recalled candidates would be automatically removed and the Nov. 2 election would be won by the candidate with a simple plurality of the vote. If, say, five candidates split the vote but none got more than a simple majority, there would be no run-off. The candidate with the most votes would win the office.

Mayor Ron Littlefield, the chief target of the recall effort, had remained quiet, wisely from his point of view, throughout the signature-collection period. City Council members Jack Benson and Manny Rico, who also became recall targets because of their perceived support for some Littlefield initiatives, have also confirmed that they will run for office again if a recall vote is held.

Recall proponents had the last two months to lambaste the mayor. They accused him of corruption - a baseless charge absent legal facts - and pilloried his administration. Yet their recall effort has mainly hinged on antipathy to the badly needed 19 percent property tax increase - the first in eight years - that Littlefield initiated earlier this summer. Critics also denounced him for increased levies for sewer service - a service tied to water rates - and for storm-water runoff containment, which must be improved to comply with state and federal clean-water mandates.

In effect, their charges against the mayor, and more recently against Benson and Rico, have served as window dressing for their anti-tax complaints, never mind the pent-up needs of the city for improved public services and the cost of building the infrastructure that is necessary to attract new jobs. Th.at aspect of their recall effort suggests narrow, myopic motives for a recall campaign that would effectively harm the city's image, governmental stability, development efforts and future potential.

Littlefield's statement correctly underscores the fallacy of the excessive anti-tax sentiment. He noted that the chief recall proponent and underwriter is a multimillionaire whose elder-care business - and fortune - relies on the benefits to seniors of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

"Hypocritically, he now seeks to preach to us about the evils of taxes and government programs," Littlefield charged. He called other "instigators" of the recall initiative "chronic grumblers and complainers" whose "common thread seems to be that no one actually has a job other than tearing down what others have worked hard to create. In that regard, they seem willing to say or do anything."

Though Chattanoogans have yet to learn whether the recall effort will end in another election, it's now clear that Mayor Littlefield will not - and should not - leave the field quietly if the recall petition comes to fruition. If it's mainly about a rare and modest tax increase, an election should quickly resolve which direction Chattanoogans would chose for our city.