Chattanooga City Councilwoman Deborah Scott wants the November ballot to include referendums on term limits for City Council members, and on moving city elections from March, in an odd-numbered year, to November, in an even-number year. The former is barely a toss-up. The latter, rightly framed, has much merit. The question is whether the council has the time -- and the will -- to get it on the November ballot.
Changing the date of the city's off-year elections -- Chattanoogan's next stand-alone election is in April 2013 -- to synchronize them with fixed, even-year county and state balloting makes good sense. Scott suggests November because state and national elections are held then and voter turnout is typically heavier than in March. Better yet would be shifting city elections to the August even-year countywide election. That would save the city the heavy cost of an off-year election, and allow use of the November ballot in the event of the need for a run-off election in the city's open mayoral race.
The city's current off-year election wastes taxpayers' money. City residents are, of course, county residents, too, and they should be able to vote in both city and county elections at the same time, as other local municipalities do. One large issue presents an obstacle: To get city officials on an even-year, four-year cycle, the referendum would have to allow a shorter term for the transitional election. The method and legality of accomplishing such a shift would require adequate notice to potential candidates for such an election.
Scott's proposal to limit council members to two terms, on the grounds that the mayor is limited to two terms, has a certain appeal, but its attractiveness has as much to do with the councilwoman's framing of the issue as with the possible merits of change.
Scott -- who said Tuesday that she would limit her own service on the council to two terms if she is re-elected --makes the argument that term limits would expand the opportunity for interested and talented Chattanoogans to participate in government. That's true, but there is no guarantee that the forced evacuation of council seats would produce a rash of qualified officeholders. Indeed, it could lead to a loss of the institutional knowledge and expertise essential to good government.
Besides, council members, like elected officials everywhere, already are subject to term limits by disaffected voters: Voters can turn any of them out in the next election.
The council already is discussing new recall guidelines for the mayor and members of the council. The recent attempt to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield demonstrated the deep flaws with current city recall statutes which differ considerably from state law. The council should move to align the City Charter with state recall regulations, which a trial court has ruled take precedence. If the council has time to address both the recall and a shift it election years, it should take advantage of the November ballot for both measures.