Council approves first reading of amendment to recall statute

Authored By James Harrison

Chattanooga City Council members voted 6-3 Tuesday to approve the first reading of a resolution that would amend the City Charter with regards to the process for recalling elected officials. 

The vote came one week after the council deferred discussing the measure and five months after a Circuit Court judge ruled that an effort to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield was not in line with standards put in place by the Tennessee state Constitution.

Under the new resolution, the city would adhere to the state’s standards for mayoral recalls, which requires at least 15 percent of registered voters to sign a recall petition before moving forward; and council members would be subject to recall after a petition had been signed by 15 percent of registered voters in their districts.

Voting against the measure were council members Andraé McGary, Sally Robinson and Deborah Scott. 

The vote came after the council discussed the measure at length during their afternoon agenda session. Robinson said she was “troubled” by the idea that the new resolution would allow for city officials to be recalled for reasons other than being “indicted, convicted or arrested,” and she suggested that elections were the most democratic way of recalling elected officials for political reasons.

“It just seems inherently wrong to me that elections, which are governed by law and constitutional right of citizens … that that almost sacred bond, the foundation of our democracy, can be tinkered with for no cause other than unless there are provisions that set out the way this can occur,” Robinson said. “It can be for some spurious reason. A group comes together and in effect throws a duly elected person out of office for no reason other than that they raised taxes or voted to raise taxes.”

Councilman Peter Murphy countered Robinson’s view, suggesting that recall efforts could be levied for any reason-but that the electoral process still ruled whether or not an official would stay.

“A recall petition is simply a large enough group of the people saying we want another election and that that person is not ousted from office unless they lose that election,” Murphy said. “So the electoral process is still sacrosanct under the recall provisions.”

Councilwoman Deborah Scott voiced concerns that under the proposed resolution, efforts to recall an official could potentially require more petition signatures than the total number of voters who actually voted in the most recent election. 

“I don’t think council members should feel at risk for recall, but on the other hand, I don’t think citizens ought to be at risk for not being able to recall,” Scott said. “And I guess my initial question was, what is the justification for a number in which a recall petition would exceed the whole number that came out and voted in a race?”

A handful of citizens voiced disapproval with the council’s vote. Perrin Lance, who participated in the recent effort to recall Littlefield, said the group would ultimately raise the number of signatures required to recall an official, effectively making it more difficult.

“It’s a very common sense rule-half the voters in that particular election plus one, which is the number needed to win in office in the first place,” Lance said. “It’s common sense in my book; it’s common sense in most Chattanoogans’ book. But just to let you know, you are clearly making it harder for citizens in Chattanooga to hold elected officials accountable, but you don’t have to choose this way, and I’d encourage you to do so.”

The council will vote on a final reading of the resolution in their meeting next Tuesday. If approved, the item would be placed on the November ballot for referendum.

“The citizens still have input on it,” Councilwoman Pam Ladd said, following the meeting. “They can vote it down.”