Chattanooga Unity Group raises concerns about move to require runoffs in council elections

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Marie Mott carries a Juneteenth flag during the Juneteenth National Freedom Day Parade on Citico Avenue on June 18.

NASHVILLE - Marie Mott, who led local demonstrations in response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, got the most votes for the District 8 seat on the Chattanooga City Council last week.

But she hasn't won yet.

Mott and appointed incumbent Marvene Noel will face off in a Sept. 15 runoff election, an extra step imposed by a City Council resolution this year, which the Unity Group is questioning.

Mott received 557 votes to Noel's 341. The runoff was triggered because Mott did not secure a majority by receiving more than 50% of the vote.

"While we don't dispute the validity of the need for a special election, we do think the process identified in Resolution 31030 was not adequately conveyed to the voters," Unity Group Co-Chairman Eric Atkins said in an email to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "This very well could have been a determining factor in the election outcome. The voters have a right to clear and accurate facts that help them be as informed and educated on the election and issues as possible.

"The City Charter should not be left to interpretation," Atkins said. "It should be rules of governance that all citizens of the city can readily refer to and discern. This is not the case today, and until it is, election protections, processes and procedures are subject to being in peril; election fairness and integrity can be called into question."

The Unity Group was formed a half-century ago to encourage Black Chattanoogans to run for public office, unify disparate community groups and press for economic power. Both Mott and Noel are Black.

The procedural change was made Feb. 8 in a 7-1 council vote, setting the rules for the District 8 special election. Previously, the person with the most votes was named the winner in such elections, regardless of whether the candidate received a majority.

This time, the council instead required a majority vote, to match the standard for mayoral and regular council elections.

Under the previous standard, Mott would have been elected.

Last week's nonpartisan election for District 8 was to fill out the remainder of the term of former Councilman Anthony Byrd, who resigned his post on the nine-member council to become Chattanooga's new City Court clerk. The contest was placed on the same ballot as county-level general election contests for office, including county mayor as well as political primaries to determine nominees for state and federal offices.

The runoff will be a stand-alone contest for voters in areas of Chattanooga, including Alton Park, Avondale, Bushtown, Courthouse, Downtown, East Chattanooga, East Lake, Eastside and Ridgedale.

Mott, chairwoman of civic engagement for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP branch, received 46.33% of the 1,202 ballots cast in the Thursday election.

Noel, who earlier competed with several others to win the interim appointment on March 8 to represent the seat until the election, received about 28.1% of the vote. Noel is a past president of the Orchard Knob Neighborhood Association and serves on Park Ridge Health System's board of trustees.

The third-place finisher, Malarie B. Marsh, will not proceed to the runoff.

At the same meeting in February at which the City Council voted to require special election council candidates to receive a majority of votes to win, members also voted 6-2 against requiring a pledge from whomever they appointed to fill Byrd's seat not to run for the seat.

They wound up appointing Noel to the seat on March 8. She said soon afterward she intended to run for the seat.

photo Staff Photo / Marvene Noel, of Orchard Knob, was appointed to the District 8 seat on the Chattanooga City Council. She is seen here after the vote on March 8.

Although the council has no legal authority to block the appointee from seeking the seat, the verbal pledge has been sometimes sought in the past so as not to give an appointed incumbent an unfair advantage over other candidates.

Mott was a leader in Chattanooga's Black Lives Matter protest movement and still has charges pending from that time. She is scheduled to appear Aug. 24 before Judge Don W. Poole on one count of disorderly conduct, one count of obstruction of a highway, one count of reckless burning and two counts of vandalism.

Mott has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, which are misdemeanors.

Mott took to Facebook in July 2020 to acknowledge removing the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office flag from in front of the downtown jail and then burning it during a protest.

"I took the flag that belongs to the sheriff down from the flagpole in front of the county jail and I burned it," Mott said.

Efforts to reach her for this story were unsuccessful.

A DEPARTURE FROM THE PAST

In response to Atkins' criticism, former Council Chairman Chip Henderson, still a member of the council from Lookout Valley, said in a phone interview Sunday he thought the change from a plurality vote was needed.

Henderson said after Byrd announced he was resigning and prior to anyone announcing they were running to replace him, he began researching "how the charter actually addressed replacing the councilperson."

Henderson also asked a staffer to pull up council minutes from prior instances involving a council member's departure.

"It was pretty simple, they would be replaced by the majority of the existing council, and that they would have a special election at the next available election," Henderson said.

"Now, it didn't address a runoff one way or the other," Henderson said. "So in looking at the minutes and the process from the previous councils, one thing they did, they required the nominee or the replacement to pledge they would not run for election. What I was attempting to do was just lay out a process, present some recommendations to the council."

One of those was the council asking the person seeking to be a caretaker to pledge that they not run. His fellow council members turned that down.

"The other recommendation was that we give this election the same dignity of the other eight of us had, and that would be winning with 50%-plus-one," Henderson said. "All eight remaining council people had their win with majority vote. So I thought it was important that seat had the same dignity, that election had the same dignity."

The lone no vote came from Councilwoman Jenny Hill of North Chattanooga, who said she preferred "ranked choice" voting, which allows voters to select more than one candidate, in ranked order, and their choices are used to perform an "instant runoff" among candidates to find one with majority support.

"The reason that I had concern was because runoff elections are hard on the candidate and also are difficult on just getting voters back to the polls," Hill said. "So ranked choice voting is something I see as a positive way forward to help us with voters being engaged in elections and feeling like their votes really count. And I mean this for all [city] elections."

In two 2008 special elections for City Council, candidates won by having a plurality of the vote, not a majority, according to a review of past council special elections done by Chattanooga City Attorney Phil Noblett, which he provided to Hamilton County Election Administrator Scott Allen and Henderson.

EARLY VOTING FOR RUNOFF

Allen said in an email to the Times Free Press on Monday that early voting is scheduled for Aug. 26-Sept. 10, with times and location to be determined.

Noel told the Times Free Press she was disappointed in voter turnout last week.

"I'm feeling good about the runoff," she said. "I'm going to continue to work hard in retaining my seat and being of service to the people in District 8 and taking District 8 to a level it needs to be at.

"I would have loved for more of the registered voters to have come out and voted. Not quite sure why they did not, but that's an area that we probably need to work on. We're going to circle up and try to figure out what direction we're going to go and how we're going to handle this, but hey, I'm in it to win it. Period."

Reporters David Floyd and La Shawn Pagán contributed to this report.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.