UPDATEChattanooga City Council debates hiring attorney over mayoral recall
ISSUES TO BE CLARIFIED
Mayor Ron Littlefield says there are four key issues in the recall effort that need to be decided by the courts:Are the signed recall petitions sufficient to meet the requirement of state statute? Littlefield maintains that half the 9,600 certified ballots do not have dates as required by law.Editorial comments exist on some ballots, which Littlefield said is against state law.Does state law or city charter prevail in what rules should be followed?Littlefield maintains state law trumps the city charter and calls for a three-step recall election process: certification, a question on the ballot asking if voters wish to recall the mayor, then a recall election.Source: Mayor Ron Littlefield
Mayor Ron Littlefield is prepared to sue the Chattanooga City Council if it takes even the tiniest steps toward trying to oust him.
Hal North, Littlefield's attorney, said Monday he has prepared paperwork to be filed and ask a Circuit Court judge to issue an injunction if the council makes any moves toward removing the mayor from office.
"We would attempt to [stop] them before the meeting," North said. "We like to deal with this at the front end."
The City Council is expected to discuss today whether to hire an outside attorney to study the City Charter and tell council members if there is any language that would force them to pass a resolution removing Littlefield from office.
Councilman Peter Murphy, chairman of the council's Legal and Legislative Committee, sent an email to other council members Friday, saying the issue should be discussed during his committee meeting. He said Monday he had no intention of ousting the mayor tonight and would oppose such a move.
"I would not vote for it," he said. "I wouldn't be ready to do that."
The city is bracing for a possible recall election in August after the Hamilton County Election Commission certified recall petitions last week and set an election date. The decision was made after the state Court of Appeals ruled that the commission should have had an opportunity to vote on certification last year when the petitions were first handed in. A local Circuit Court judge stopped the certification at the time.
On Monday, Littlefield sent a memo to council members, telling them they should take a look at changing the City Charter and clarifying its rules about recall elections for future administrations. He said the council should not focus on the ongoing legal issues with his administration.
"These matters are presently proceeding through the courts and any further action by the City Council at this time would only exacerbate an already confused situation," he wrote in the memo.
Jim Folkner, with Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, one of the groups behind the recall effort, said Monday it seems reasonable for the city to look for outside counsel on the legal issue. He said he did not understand the mayor's threat of a lawsuit against the council.
"I think it's sad for him to file lawsuit after lawsuit to stay in power, at least for a little longer," Folkner said.
The recall effort started last year when three groups -- Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, Chattanooga Organized for Action and the Chattanooga Tea Party -- banded together and started petitioning to recall Littlefield.
The groups gathered more than 15,000 signatures and the commission certified 9,600 of them. But Littlefield's attorneys maintain there are still questions on whether state law trumps the City Charter during recall efforts and if the number of petitions collected are actually valid. The state says more signatures are needed than the charter.
Councilwoman Carol Berz, who will be out of town for today's meeting, sent an email to Murphy on Monday, saying she thought any final decision by the council would be hasty at this point.
"I believe the best course of action is to let the legal process come to completion before we act, if at all," she said. "To do otherwise gives the appearance of bias toward one conclusion or another -- a result that I know the council does not want."
Hamilton County Election Commission attorney Chris Clem also weighed in Monday, saying he does not think the City Council has the authority to remove the mayor before the election.
"I don't think it's fair to say he's automatically vacated," he said.
A provision within the City Charter also states that, if the mayor's position is vacated, a city election must take place within 90 to 120 days. Clem said that is not applicable because state law only allows municipalities to lower the threshold of signatures needed on the recall petitions.
"State law does not allow anything else," he said. "State statute does not say you can modify the election date."