The Hamilton County Election Commission has rejected a petition by a coalition of activist organizations after the groups came up short on collecting enough valid signatures to put legislation for a new Chattanooga police oversight board on the March 2021 ballot.
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. That number is based on a percentage of those who voted in the last Chattanooga mayoral election.
The group was able to gather 6,089 signatures, according to Kristi Berry, executive assistant to the administrator of elections. Of those, 1,596 were rejected after an audit of the initial count, a recount and another audit of the signatures.
The rejected signatures were deemed invalid 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. And at least 48 were duplicate signatures.
Coalition members gathered in a "Caravan to Demand a Recount" outside the election commission Tuesday morning ahead of the meeting during which commissioners officially rejected the petition.
"While we have been made aware of the Hamilton County Election Commission's decision that the initiative to place community oversight on the city of Chattanooga March ballot appears to have fallen several hundred votes short of the required number, our coalition will enter a phase where we will verify and validate those names and signatures that were disqualified," the coalition said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. "We have called for full transparency throughout the course of this process and will work to ensure that the integrity of this ballot initiative is upheld and protected."
The group went on to thank the citizens who signed the petition "despite a time of COVID-19 anxiety, economic uncertainty and social justice upheaval" and "affirmed that community control is an issue that is worthy and significant enough to warrant placement on the ballot so that the citizens can give voice on how this community must address this vitally important issue."
The group has been pushing for a recount with an independent agency overseeing the process and with a member of the coalition present, and that was something the election commission had been 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.
However, the conversation never reached that point, Berry said, because "according to the state, what we've done is satisfactory."
Total signatures required: 4,719
Total collected: 6,089
Total rejected: 1,596
Rejected outside precinct or municipality: 933
Rejected invalid signatures: 97
Rejected duplicate signatures: 48
Rejected not registered: 425
Source: Hamilton County Election Commission
"[The commission] feels we have given every benefit of the doubt to the signees of these petitions and no further count is necessary considering the four-step review process we've already completed," commissioners wrote in a handout provided at the Tuesday morning hearing.
With the petition rejected, the deadline to complete another petition in time to put a question on the 2021 ballot has passed, according to the commission. The group will have to start over, and it'll have to go on the next ballot in 2022.
The Chattanooga Police Department already has a citizen review board — the Police Advisory and Review Committee that was formed in 2019 after a series of allegations of police brutality and misconduct. It serves as an investigative entity to review all Chattanooga Police Department internal affairs investigations.
But since its inception, activist organizations have said the current review committee lacks true, independent oversight.
The new board would have included members nominated by local nonprofit organizations as opposed to being appointed by the Chattanooga City Council. Each member would have still had to be approved by the council.
The draft legislation called for money to be allocated in the city's budget for its operating expenses, including board member compensation. (Members of the current committee are not paid.)
It also called for a one-time, $1 million appropriation to cover "initial costs and expenses related to the hiring and training of employees and board members, secure necessary infrastructure and equipment, conduct a public awareness campaign and otherwise implement the requirements of this ordinance."
One of the issues activists have regularly pointed out is that, without subpoena power, any oversight board will not have any true investigative power.
But under state legislation passed in 2019 to regulate police oversight boards, such boards cannot be vested with subpoena power.
The initiative petition stated 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 could have been resolved if the measure had succeeded, as all of the signatures would have been invalidated if the legislation required revision.