Legal battle brewing over Chattanooga ordinance vote
The Chattanooga City Council is going to war over words. And it's all about how voters will read a question on domestic partner benefits. We break down this hot topic and get to the bottom of the debate.
Wednesday, July 2nd 2014, 5:16 pm EDT
CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - A legal battle is brewing between the City of Chattanooga and the Hamilton County Election Commission. It's all over how voters will read the referendum on the city's non-discrimination ordinance during the election in August.
The ordinance has brought several months of controversy-- mainly the part that extends benefits to domestic partners of city employees. That means the couple is unmarried and living together of the same or opposite sex. City council passed the ordinance last fall, but enough petitioners came forward that now the final decision will be in the voter's hands during Hamilton County's General Election August 7th.
The new dispute is over which party gets to pick the wording that voters will see on the ballot.
The city attorney's office and CPD Lt. Corliss Cooper are filing suit against the election commission. Petitioners say they're filing suit against the city. It's a saga that's running out of time to be settled.
"This is a city ordinance, it's gong to impact city employees and it's going to be voted on by city residents. The state law and city charter provides that the city attorney drafts to summary," Chattanooga City Attorney Wade Hinton said.
In the latest move, the City of Chattanooga says its filing suit against the Hamilton County Election Commission for the right to choose the language of the ballot question that will ask voters if they're for or against the non-discrimination ordinance. It, in part, extends benefits like health and life insurance to the domestic partners of city workers.
"We don't really care. We don't have a dog in that fight but we did look up the statute and the statute is pretty clear," Hamilton County Election Commissioner Chris Clem said following an emergency meeting on the topic Friday.
In an emergency meeting Friday, the election commission decided petitioners get to choose the wording since they're responsible for the issue being put before voters.
"What we were told back in November when we were putting together the petition was that was had to come up with the exact proper wording," petitioner Mark West with the group Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency said.
Petitioners argue the city's version of the question is misleading. Meanwhile, City Attorney Wade Hinton points to city charter that says the entire ordinance or summary should be what voters see.
"It's our role here at the city attorney's office to ensure the city charter is adhered to," Hinton said.
The election commission points to state law.
"It said the election commission shall publish the question contained in the petition. It's not really a gray area, it's very clear," Clem said.
The lawsuits over who's right now go to Hamilton County Circuit Court.
The Hamilton County Election Commission has called another emergency meeting to discuss the issue 8 a.m. Monday, July 7th in room 120 of the courthouse on Georgia Avenue.