Chattanooga coalition requests signature recount to get police oversight question on ballot

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Police investigate a shooting outside the Flaming Rooster restaurant on Brainerd Road on Thursday, May 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. According to police, one man was shot in what appears to be a drive-by shooting.

A coalition of activist organizations seeking to put legislation for a new Chattanooga police oversight board on the March 2021 ballot is asking the Hamilton County Election Commission to recount the signatures the group collected.

The commission determined the group was 200 to 300 signatures short of the requirement to make the ballot, once invalid signatures were weeded out.

The coalition, called Community Control Now, got the green light to collect signatures in October, with a goal of at least 4,791 by Dec. 2. If signature gatherers got enough valid signatures, the process to vet the legality of the proposed legislation could begin, and if approved, it would be placed on the ballot for voters to decide if they wanted to adopt the new oversight board.

However, if the legislation needs any level of revision, the signatures would be invalidated and the process would have to begin all over again, according to the commission.

In an email to the election commission and subsequent Facebook post on Thursday night, the group said it collected 6,029 signatures. But, the commission "has thrown out over 1,500 petition signatures, and approved only 4,432 as being registered voters in the city," the group wrote.

According to the commission, some of the signatures were invalidated for a variety of reasons: some people were not registered voters or were not registered in the city of Chattanooga or had recently moved to a different voting district. Several signatures came from people who lived in East Ridge, which is a separate municipality with a separate police department.

"In the interest of transparency and out of due respect for the collective will of the people of Chattanooga, we request a recount be done with an independent agency overseeing the process and with a member of our team present," the group wrote to the commission. "As such, please consider this email an official request for a recount."

Any time a petition doesn't meet its required number of signatures, the commission conducts its own internal audit, said Kristi Berry, executive assistant to the administrator of elections. The commission is in the process of doing that right now, and will have an official number of valid signatures next week, she said.

As for whether an independent agency and a member of the coalition can be present during a recount, Berry said that is something the commission is waiting on for guidance from the state. That is because commission officials handle private information, such as Social Security numbers, when vetting the signatures, and there is no law that allows for witnesses to the process or known precedent of it happening before.

The Chattanooga Police Department already has a citizen review board - the Police Advisory and Review Committee. Since its inception in 2019, activist organizations have said the group lacks true, independent oversight.

The new board would include members who'd be nominated by local nonprofit organizations as opposed to being appointed by the Chattanooga City Council. Each member would still have to be approved by the council.

Another issue activists have regularly pointed out is that, without subpoena power, any oversight board will not have any true investigative power.

But, because of state legislation passed in 2019 to regulate police oversight boards, police oversight boards cannot be vested with subpoena power.

The ballot question listed in the proposed legislation submitted to the election commission and attached to the petition for signatures states that the new board would have "the independent authority to subpoena witnesses, establish public reports and issue findings of fact related to police misconduct."

It's not clear how, or whether, the apparent conflict with the state law might be resolved if the measure succeeds in boosting the number of valid signatures through a recount.

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.