The bill for a flawed recall

The bill for a flawed recall

February 15th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The county Election Commission and organizers of the failed effort to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield said last week they weren't sure what their next step would be in the wake of the court ruling that barred the recall. Organizers were rightly uncertain about their dim chances in another legal appeal, yet some Election Commission members suggested they might bill the city for the cost of this disastrous farce.

As they review the wreckage of their misguided mission and the legal flaws that allowed it, it should be apparent that they brought their defeat on themselves. And as a result, the Election Commission itself -- not the city of Chattanooga and not Mayor Littlefield -- should bear the cost of the commission's egregious failure to follow the state's election laws.

The recall petitions failed from the get-go to meet legal muster for the needed number of valid, dated signatures and the form of their petitions. The recall sponsors would not have had enough legally valid and dated signatures and properly formed petitions even if the city's faulty recall statute had been properly enacted -- which the court found it hadn't.

The superior state recall law still would have required valid voter signatures to be signed and dated, to allow signees to legally retract their signature within 10 days of signing such a petition. The force of state law also still would have required a unifying legal question on the petitions. There was no getting around those legal requirements, and the Election Commission should have automatically upheld them in the beginning.

Yet the same three Republican commission members dismissed their responsibility when the deadline for the petitions loomed. They did so again after being informed in 2010 by the first court ruling of their due process errors. And when the recall lawsuit was remanded back to the Election Commission by the appeals court last November for due process on a decision, they blithely went ahead and certified a recall election without considering the potential legal result of the action. That was their last chance to acknowledge the process errors and deny the recall on the merits of the petitions.

They apparently just assumed that when the case inevitably came back before the court, as it did last week, that the judge would excuse their official negligence and inattention to the requirements of the law governing recalls.

Their sheer gall leading to this debacle was stunningly apparent -- and wholly inexcusable. Commissioner Jerry Summers, one of the commission's two Democratic minority members and a former long-time attorney for the Election Commission, had timely cited the flaws both before and after the 2010 court ruling -- and was still reminding the commission of that last November.

Regardless, Commissioner Tommy Crangle justified their decision then to certify the recall on the grounds that the people who had signed the petitions deserved to have the recall election held, never mind the legal problems that Judge Jeff Hollingsworth had noted as grounds to bar the recall election.

"The people need to have confidence that their laws are legitimate. I think they have the right to recall their officials. I don't know how we can deny that right," he said at the Nov. 17 meeting at which the recall election was certified for the 2012 August general election.

The peoples' rights to recall, of course, must rest on adherence to the legal requirements of the recall law, and the commission's conscientious observance of that law. That's the least that must be required if such a tiny minority of recall-minded voters are to oust a mayor who was elected by a majority of voters.

But never mind. Fellow Republican Commissioners Michael Walden and Ruth Braly, embraced Crangle's dubious posturing, and promptly carried the Election Commission right off the legal cliff. Commission attorney Chris Clem's quixotic effort to have the superior state law declared unconstitutional abetted the subsequent legal folly.

Now it's time to face the results. The Election Commissioners will have to ask the County Commission for an additional sum, now estimated at around $150,000, to pay for their flawed handling of a recall election that never should have been certified. In any case, the city's residential and commercial tax base, which represents nearly 80 percent of the county government's tax revenue, will still take the hit.