Judge rules petitioners get to choose election ballot wording - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Judge: Petitioners get to choose election ballot wording

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - The Hamilton County Election Commission won a legal battle brought on by the City of Chattanooga. The dispute was over who gets to choose the wording of a controversial referendum being put before voters.

The question asks city residents if they're for or against the Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which has received state-wide attention. It would, in part, extend benefits to the domestic partners of city workers.

The Hamilton County election ballots are finally working their way through the printer. The final draft had to be submitted by noon Monday, which made for a tight deadline after last-minute lawsuits were filed over the wording of one hot-button question.

"I mean could you imagine some of these state-wide races for us senator and governor waiting on Hamilton County because we didn't get our ballots printed," Hamilton County Election Commissioner Chris Clem said.

It's a new situation for the Hamilton County Election Commission-- a referendum by citizens instead of city leaders. A group of citizens wants voters to undo an ordinance that would extend benefits to domestic partners of city workers. That means, an unmarried couple of the same or opposite sex living together and sharing expenses. The latest dispute was over who got to choose the wording of the question on the election ballot.

"We had the petitioners saying they had the better worded question. Then we had the City of Chattanooga and the police officer saying they had better wording," Clem said.

Election commissioners said their decision to have petitioners write up the question, is based on state law. The city didn't agree and council voted to take the issue to court alongside ordinance supporter and city employee, CPD Lt. Corliss Cooper.

"I certainly understand the police officer but what I don't really understand was the city council making the decision to at the eleventh hour file a lawsuit," petitioner Mark West said.

Just a few hours before Monday's ballot deadline, Circuit Court Judge Neil Thomas made the final ruling that petitioners pick the language not the city attorney.

"They wasted dollars pursuing something that if they just read the law, they would've seen clearly," West said.

The city attorney plans to appeal and released this statement: "While we appreciate the Court's expedited decision on the ballot question, it is important our residents have convenient access to the most information available to assist them in voting on a City issue.  With that in mind, the City of Chattanooga will file an application to appeal the Court's decision.  If the Court's ruling stands, we would strongly encourage a re-examination of the referendum process to require City participation in important issues related to the City Charter."

The city says its appeal will likely be taken up before the August 7th election, but the election commission says it will likely be dealt with after. That means if it's overturned, voters will have to vote on the issue again. We'll keep you posted.

Early voting starts July 18th. Again, the ballots have begun printing, around $40,000 worth.
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