Push to change Chattanooga election schedule, set term limits for City Council fails

Staff Photo / Clarence Harris carries his early voting ballot for Chattanooga's 2021 municipal runoff election to the vote counting machine at the Chris L. Ramsey Sr. Community Center.

An effort to move the municipality's nonpartisan elections to August so they align with state races and to impose term limits for members of the Chattanooga City Council has failed.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, of Eastdale, has been working over the past several months on the ordinance, which stalled on first reading Tuesday after it was unable to gain a second from one of her colleagues.

Coonrod said previously she suggested the changes out of a desire to boost low turnout for city elections and save money. City elections occur in March with runoffs happening in April.

The proposal would have instead moved city elections to the first Thursday of August beginning in 2026, the same day as county general elections and state primaries. Runoffs would have been rescheduled to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

If City Council members had approved the changes, they would have also required signoff from a majority of voters via a referendum, which would have occurred in 2025. Additionally, the ordinance would have restricted council members to four consecutive four-year terms.

"We represent for each one of our city districts 20,000 plus people," Coonrod said in a phone call Wednesday, "and if we've only got 1,000 or less people coming out to vote and that's how we get elected, where are the other 19,000 people? Why aren't they engaged in voting? Why are our millennials not voting in our city elections?"

If there are parts of the proposal that council members can agree on, Coonrod said, she would like to bring the ordinance back in the future.

"Ultimately, even if we make the decision to move forward, it still lies in the hands of our constituents," she said. "And I think that we robbed them of the opportunity to make a decision."

The proposal drew some skepticism from council members, with at least two arguing it could cause the city's nonpartisan elections to become overshadowed by national political rhetoric.

"Our city elections create their own, separate conversation away from the noise of partisan blather," Councilwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, said in an August email to her colleagues. "Candidates are motivated to work just as diligently to earn votes -- and they have an opportunity to do so based on their ideas, record, relationships and work ethic -- rather than a binary (Republican or Democrat) proposition."

The city spent just short of $225,000 on the March 2021 election and more than $180,000 for the April runoff, Hamilton County Elections Administrator Scott Allen said in a phone call. That runoff was more expensive than other years because there was a mayoral race in 2021, meaning all city precincts had to be open for the April election.

According to city officials, the April 13, 2017, special runoff election cost $31,223. Most special elections cost in the range of $25,000 to $35,000, former Chattanooga Chief Financial Officer Brent Goldberg said in an email to another city official in 2022.

Moving city elections so they coincide with August and November races, Allen said, would be much cheaper for the city. The Hamilton County Election Commission may have to add a few extra poll workers, Allen said, but he estimated that would only cost the city a few thousand dollars versus the approximately $400,000 spent in 2021.

On March 2, 2021, 28,482 of Chattanooga's 114,217 eligible voters participated in the city election, according to the Election Commission, marking a turnout of 24.9%.

That year, the lowest turnout in March by council district was 20.8%. That was for an uncontested race in the district now represented by Carol Berz, of Brainerd Hills, with 2,646 of the 12,718 eligible voters participating. The highest turnout was 33.2% in the district now represented by Hill, with 4,707 of the 14,171 eligible voters participating. Hill was facing two other candidates for the seat, and the race ultimately went to a runoff in April.

Allen said 23,646 of the city's eligible voters participated in the Aug. 4, 2022 election, although he pointed out that there was only one Chattanooga-specific race on the ballot that day: A special election for the District 8 seat on the City Council.

Everlena Holmes is the founder of the Hamilton County Voters Coalition, an organization formed to educate and register voters, and also runs an email list for people who want to stay informed about city government. She recently asked members about the proposed changes to the city election schedule and whether they favored term limits for council members.

"This is the first place I've been where we have all these elections, and I've lived in 29 places," she said in a phone call Monday. "It doesn't make sense. It makes much more sense to have all the elections on one day."

Holmes said she received about 25 responses to her questions, and the consensus seemed to favor combining elections and setting term limits for council members. Holmes added that one of those responses -- from Gertha Lee, the coalition's assistant leader for voter education -- perfectly captured her thoughts on the subject.

Lee argued that changing the city's election schedule would increase voter participation, adding that it would offer more options on the ballot and thereby boost interest in races. It would also be more cost-effective to operate polling places if there are fewer elections, she said, and public funds could be redistributed to boost staffing and reduce long lines.

"It would reduce the number of times voters may experience scheduling conflicts or transportation issues in regards to getting to the polls, especially when their only option is to vote on election day," Lee wrote in her response, which Holmes read aloud.

Lee was also in favor of establishing term limits for council members and elected county officials.

"I do believe our elected officials have the potential of becoming stagnant, complacent and could even lose sight of their vision and purpose," Lee wrote. "This occurs when one's interest shifts to just getting re-elected. This type of mindset could cause someone to make decisions or cast votes solely based on their personal constituents' desires."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.