Results of a flawed recall effort against Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield

Results of a flawed recall effort against Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield

November 22nd, 2011 in Opinion Times

Mayor Ron Littlefield . Staff Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield issued welcome notice Monday that he will pursue all available legal options to thwart what he reasonably sees as a flawed recall effort which was wrongly given traction by a partisan Hamilton County Election Commission vote last week. His notice also rightly informed the City Council that he would contest any attempt to install a place-holder in his seat pending the outcome of his legal appeals to overturn the recall movement.

Littlefield also urged the council to undertake two other timely initiatives. One would have the council end the confusion over the city's flawed recall provisions by properly amending the relevant city statute to comply with prevailing state law, which is more strenuous, orderly and logical. The other suggested initiative recommends a general referendum next August to amend to the city's charter to move city elections from off-years to the regularly scheduled August balloting for county, state and federal elections.

Both initiatives make good sense. They should have been adopted years ago. The next general city election, for example, is now scheduled for March 2, 2013, an off-year ballot. By contrast, the general county and state, and federal primary elections, are held every two years on even-numbered years -- the next county election being in August, 2012. Were the city to change its elections to coincide with county and state elections, it would save significant election expenses and improve voter turnout, which is usually far lower in the city's off-year ballot than in the broader, even-year elections.

The custom of holding an independent off-year city election was probably quietly designed to facilitate weak turnout susceptible to vote-rolling manipulation. It would be worthwhile to shift the off-year elections to even-year balloting to improve voter turnout, reduce voter manipulation and save the high cost of a needless election. An August 2012 amendment to accomplish this would not help Littlefield at all -- he's already in the second term of his two-term limit -- but it would make sound policy for the city going forward.

As for recalls generally, it also would properly raise the threshold for future recall contests. By both the state and city percentage-based recall formulas, a larger turnout would require a higher number of recall petition signatures. That would be fair. A relatively small minority of dissidents should not be able to demand a recall election -- as is now being attempted -- because of a previous low-voter turnout in 2009. That sort of anomaly destabilizes local government, and it isn't fair to the larger majority of voters whose votes are thus nullified.

Littlefield's memo to the City Council outlining his views of the flawed recall petitions largely coincides with the arguments his attorney made last year claiming an inadequate number of qualified signatures and faulty petitions. But it also introduced his suspicion of forged signatures, along with inadequate verification procedures. Added to the council's confusion about what the Election Commission's recall certification means -- i.e., whether it requires a ministerial transfer of the mayor's duties to someone else pending the commission's so-called "recall" vote next August -- the mayor's beef with the shoddy, confusing recall procedure is entirely justified.

The state three-step recall law is much more logical. If a recall petition is deemed adequate under the law, it calls for a ballot, first, to ask voters whether they want to recall an official. If a majority say yes, then it establishes an election date for a successor. By contrast, the city's provision allows the Election Commission, on the petition of a minority fringe, to just say that a popularly elected is automatically kicked out of office without a yes-no vote to determine the majority view on recall. As if to prove its inadequacy and fatal flaws, City Council members can't even decipher what the provision means or how it operates.

If ever there were a case for a quick and forceful lawsuit, this is it. Until a qualified court rules on the process, Mayor Littlefield should fight to keep his office.