Change Chattanooga's flawed recall law

Change Chattanooga's flawed recall law

October 30th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Efforts over the past several years to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield have illustrated the fatal flaws of the city's recall law. It's illegal under state law, and it needs to be replaced. An ordinance on the Nov. 6 ballot (No. 12631) would correct the flaws, establish a rational three-step process for recall, and fix a reasonable formula for the number of signatures needed to launch a recall.

Defects in the city's current recall law weren't obvious because the recall law wasn't used. It took the petitions of a tiny minority of registered voters over the last City Council/mayoral term to illuminate its many flaws.

What we learned, specifically, was this: The current city recall law would have allowed less than 9 percent of the city's approximately 105,000 registered voters to sign a petition demanding the recall of the mayor. If the petitions were certified - as they wrongly were by the partisan and misguided county Election Commission - and then allowed to stand, Mayor Ron Littlefield would have been put out of office immediately, and an election for a new mayor would been scheduled within 60 days.

Trial and appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, rightly overturned the city's recall law and the Election Commission's position, and for good reason. The current two-step process - a successful petition to oust the mayor, and then a quick election to replace him - would not have given a real majority of the city's 105,000 voters a chance, in a special referendum, to actually vote to recall the mayor. The petition alone would have accomplished that coup d'etat. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

The state law, which supersedes the city's recall law in several areas, remedies this shortcoming. It mandates a three-step process: 1) a successful petition by a number equal to 15 percent of the city's registered voters to demand a referendum on the recall of an elected city officials or judge; 2) a referendum to let the majority of voters actually vote on whether to recall such an official; and, 3) in the event of a majority vote for recall in step 2, a subsequent election for replace the recalled official.

The city's flawed two-step law worked to the advantage of a small minority of disgruntled voters for another reason: Though it called for a recall petition signed by a number of registered voters equal to 50 percent of the number that voted in the last mayoral election, that turnout, due to lack of serious competition, got just over 18,000 votes in a light turnout in the 2005 mayoral election. Thus the petition required just an approximate 9,000 signatures. The state's 15 percent margin of registered voters for a successful petition is a more proportional standard.

As it turned out in the futile recall initiatives, the Election Commission was shamefully wrong in its cavalier acceptance of so many signatures on the recall petitions. It wrongly accepted signatures which many signees failed to date - a requirement necessary to facilitate a signee's right to retract a signature within 10 days. The petitions also were not uniform, and they failed to state the specific question: Shall the elected official named in the petition be recalled? In all, barely 5,000 signatures were certifiable, not the 9,000 the Election Commission allowed.

Election Commission members must hold themselves to a higher, nonpartisan standard. As it was, they were unjustly lax in enforcing petition and signature requirements, apparently because the Republican majority simply agreed with the sentiment of the recall advocates. That's not right.

Passage of the city's proposed ordinance to revise the recall is necessary mainly to meet the higher standards of state law. It does provide an acceptable deviation by allowing City Council members to be subject to a recall petition based on the qualified signatures of 15 percent of the registered voters in the member's individual district.

It also stipulates that officials removed by a referendum will be temporarily replaced by a successor appointed by the council pending the election of a new official. In such an instance, the mayor would be replaced by the City Council chairperson pending the replacement election.

These are vital reforms for the city's recall process. Voters should approve them.