A tainted recall ruling

A tainted recall ruling

November 19th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The 2-1 vote by the Hamilton County Election Commission to proceed with a recall election -- albeit in August of 2012 -- of Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield reeks of willfully blind misdirection, or unbridled political sabotage. Either way, it's a flawed decision.

It wrongly inflates a withered fringe initiative to oust the mayor over necessary fiscal policies. It harms the city's progress and political direction at a critical time. And at the moment, it's causing needless uncertainty about the present state of city government and the legal viability of the mayor's continued tenure.

The commission's decision, of course, may well fall soon before a court. The recall initiative, the subject of a pending lawsuit, is already being contested by the mayor at the appellate court level. It is further tainted by compelling legal questions regarding the adequacy of the recall petitions, the signatures on them, and the law -- state or municipal -- under which it falls. When the case is finally heard on its merits -- again -- there's a good chance that it will fail, again, to require a recall election.

That, indeed, was the verdict when the case was decided here last year by Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth. He ruled then that the recall initiative was flawed in several critical ways. It was pursued under a city ordinance recall provision, instead of the prevailing -- and more strenuous -- state recall law. And, the judge found, the number of properly confirmed signatures of voters failed to meet threshold standards for certification under either recall law.

Under the state law, petitioners would have had to present around 15,000 qualified voters' signatures. Under the city's statutes, it would have needed around 9,000 qualified signatures. Hollingsworth ruled that defects in petitions and signature standards whittled the number of qualified signatures down to around 4,000, far short of sufficiency under either law.

Littlefield's initial lawsuit had cited all the defects identified by Judge Hollingsworth. When the recall sponsors appealed Hollingsworth's ruling, however, the appeals court never got to the stage of considering the merits of the case. The appeals court simply found, in a ruling last week, that the Circuit Court intervened prematurely -- that is, before the Election Commission had actually certified a recall election. Littlefield has appealed that ruling, and a response is pending within a 60-day window.

Given these unresolved issues, the pertinent question is why the two election commissioners who voted to certify the recall petition Thursday -- Tommy Crangle and Ruth Braly -- did so. Commissioner Jerry Summers rightly voted against certification. And Commissioner James Anderson abstained from voting.

Braly and Crangle also ignored the sound advice of Summers, a prominent attorney with a long history of successful appeals in the state's higher courts. He correctly argued that the current recall initiative is already hung up in the state's appeals court, and that the commission should wait to see what happens with Littlefield's appeal.

The case may yet be considered on its merits, or remanded back to court, or reinstated as a result of the commission's certification of the recall petition. That certification, in any case, is sullied and suspect by the standards cited in Hollingsworth's ruling.

Braly and Crangle justified their vote to certify the recall on the claim of its sponsors that Election Commission staff members had told them their petitions met legal standards. The correctness or legality of that logic is in doubt, however. It appears disingenuous, if not unlawful, for the commission to certify the recall as legally tenable unless and until the certification issues raised by Hollingsworth's ruling are properly resolved.

The commission needs to reconsider its decision in light of Hollingsworth's judicial ruling. This apparent dereliction of duty is needlessly putting the city's administration under a cloud. A lawsuit to stay or nullify certification of the recall can't come too soon.