Beyond Littlefield's appeals, Mayoral recall decision raises more questions
The Hamilton County Election Commission's decision to certify petitions may not guarantee that Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield will face a recall election next August that could bounce him out of office nine months early.
But recall organizers call it proof that the system is working.
"The Mayor will have a chance to explain the policies he's got, or he can continue to fight in court, if he wants to try," organizer Jim Folkner says.
"We've already filed a motion with the (Tennessee) Court of Appeals," Mayor Littlefield says.
The Mayor's legal team asserts the Commission's decision ignores key questions.
Among them, how many petition signatures are required and whether the city Charter or state law prevails.
The Charter provisions require a recall petition obtain enough certified signatures from city voters to equal 50 percent of the number who votes in the last Mayor's race; approximately 8,957 names.
"But generally speaking, the state law will almost always trump the city law," says Chattanooga City Attorney Mike McMahan.
So how did the Election Commission certify the recall, when Tennessee law mandates a petition number at least 15 percent of the total number of registered voters; about 15,000 names?
"In this particular case, state law specifically says it will allow the city to lower the number," says Chris Clem, attorney for the Election Commission.
Tennessee's Secretary of State's office has declined comment.
"There's litigation pending, we're staying out of it," spokesman Blake Fortenay says.
But Clem concedes Chattanooga's Charter is "slightly flawed."
Maybe, even contradictory.
Title VIII, Section 3, covering succession would seem to require that once a Mayor is declared recalled; the City Council chairperson, Pam Ladd, would become interim Mayor until the next term election in April 2013.
Ladd isn't planning to write an Inaugural speech yet.
"Here, I think we have to understand: what's the definition of recall," she asks.
Is it the point that a recall election is set?
Or is an office holder recalled only after an officeholder loses that election?
"I think you could read that he's not recalled until the voters vote for someone else to be Mayor," Clem answers.
"Chattanooga's Charter indicates that if any challenger garners more votes than the Mayor, he or she finishes the Mayor's term, assuming office as soon as the Election Commission and City Attorney determine he or she meets the legal qualifications to serve.
"Our City Attorney will be looking into this."
"I'm not gonna be able to serve two masters," McMahan responds.
Under the Charter, McMahan is answerable to the Mayor and to City Council.
"Presumably, the Mayor and City Council may end up on opposite sides of the question," McMahan explains.
Ladd says most Council members see an obvious conflict of interest.
"We'll be discussing whether we need to seek outside advice, at our meetings next week," she says."
Ladd also believes Council will see the need to review Charter provisions covering recalls and succession.
"(Hopefully),we can go back and look at making this a more clear-cut, understandable process," she says.
Clem is adamant that another legal matter may be more pressing.
"Is the state election law flawed? Clearly, yes" he says. "Local governments need clear direction on how to proceed when recall issues come up, when Charters conflict. Next session would be soon enough.
The clocks are ticking. The Election Commission's ruling allows would-be challengers to pick up qualifying petitions in mid-January, to be completed by mid-April.
Mayor Littlefield is awaiting an Appeals Court decision.
"It's been distracting," he says. "I think I've probably spent over $80,000 already (in personal funds and donations)."
"We'll take it to court. But I'm not showing up unless I have to."