published Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Judge strikes down recall effort

by Dan Whisenhunt
  • photo
    Staff Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee/Chattanooga Times Free Press/ Sep 7, 2010 - Mayor Ron Littlefield speaks to the press at Hamilton County Circuit Court after Judge Jeff Hollingsworth has ruled a recall effort against Mayor Ron Littlefield cannot go forward. After a day’s worth of hearings, the judge decided more signatures were needed and that some signatures were invalid.

A judge Tuesday blocked a recall effort against Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, giving the mayor some breathing room while his opponents figure out their next move.

Circuit Judge Jeff Hollingsworth ruled on a number of points and prevented Littlefield’s recall from appearing on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Hollingsworth said state law governs the recall process locally and trumps the city’s charter, meaning petitioners needed nearly 15,000 valid signatures.

About 9,000 signatures were verified by the Hamilton County Election Commission. The judge also ruled that more than 5,000 of those signatures did not count because they were not dated as required by law.

Recall opponents said the judge’s decision came down to a technicality and that they received bad advice from the Hamilton County Election Commission.

Hollingsworth reminded people in the hearing that he was merely settling legal questions raised by Littlefield’s suit.

“This is not about whether or not citizens have the right to recall elected officials,” Hollingsworth said. “They do. That is clear under the law. This is also not about whether there are grounds to recall Mayor Littlefield. That’s not for me to decide.”

Hollingsworth found the city of Chattanooga did not change the number of signatures required for a recall after 1997, as required by state law; that means state law became the final word on the number of signatures needed.

Littlefield spoke with reporters after the judge’s decision and said he still wants to get together with the organizers of the recall effort to patch over their differences. But one of those key differences, a recently passed 19 percent property tax increase, is something he said he does not regret.

“We had to do it to keep Chattanooga moving forward,” he said.

Groups behind the recall effort said they received bad advice from the Hamilton County Election Commission. They would not say whether they would appeal. They won’t have time to get more signatures to satisfy the state guidelines, according to Hamilton County Elections Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan. The deadline to get enough signatures to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot was Aug. 30.

“The mayor has successfully shut down the voice of 10,000 registered voters,” said Chris Brooks, senior organizer of Chattanooga Organized for Action. “The mayor should do what’s right for the city. He should resign.”

Jim Folkner, head of Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, said the decision rested solely on “technicalities.” An appeal would need serious discussion, he said. The attorney representing the recall petitioners, Joe Manuel, said he is doing the work pro bono.

“Right now, we’ll discuss it amongst ourselves and make a rational decision,” Folkner said.

Folkner also echoed claims that the Election Commission gave petitioners bad advice. Chris Clem, an attorney for the commission, said the commission “bent over backward” to help petitioners and said he told them they needed dates on the signatures.

“It turns out it was a moot point,” he said. “They were 6,000 signatures short.”

Hollingsworth made his decision after a day of testimony involving attorneys representing four different interests in the recall suit: Littlefield, the Hamilton County Election Commission, the city of Chattanooga and the petitioners themselves.

The courtroom was packed with media, citizens and petitioners. Littlefield sat beside his three attorneys: Hal North, the lead attorney, and Rick Hitchcock and Tom Greenholtz. Littlefield also had a hired expert witness, Certified Public Accountant Jack London, who reviewed the petitions. London reviewed which signatures did not have dates, how many contained language Littlefield’s attorney deemed “incendiary” and double-checked the commission’s numbers on valid and invalid signatures. Littlefield personally paid London $143 an hour for his work.

What’s next

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield will hold a news conference at 9 a.m. in City Hall to discuss the community moving forward after recent recall effort.

The mayor declined to say how much he spent fighting the recall effort.

After the ruling, Manuel offered further testimony about why some signatures did not have dates and said such testimony would be the basis for a possible appeal.

It is not clear what Tuesday’s ruling will mean for two city councilmen targeted by recall drives: Manny Rico and Jack Benson. Mullis-Morgan said the deadline for those signatures is Oct. 8, but the question of recalling the two councilmen would not be on the November ballot. Given what happened Tuesday, she is not sure when voters would get to vote on a recall if the organizers can get the signatures. She said petitioners need to gather 588 signatures to recall Rico and 1,032 to recall Benson; as of Tuesday the commission had received 65 for Rico and six for Benson. Mullis-Morgan said she did not know if the number of signatures needed is still accurate, in light of Hollingsworth’s ruling.

Rico said it’s out of his hands now.

“I don’t know if that ruling gets us off the hook or not,” he said. “I hope it does, but I really can’t worry about it.”

Benson said people leading the recall efforts ought to focus their efforts on something else.

“I would think they ought to spend their time on more constructive efforts than trying to fight a windmill,” he said.

Click here to vote in our daily poll: Did the judge rule correctly on the recall of Mayor Ron Littlefield?

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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fairmon said...

Did he rule correctly is now immaterial.

The councils failure to legally include the local process in the city charter is no surprise. Unfortunately this council is very consistent and predictable. They are one of the truly great comedy acts around.

The election commission tried to assist but lived up to their reputation. At least they are sincere and credible. the petitioners could have checked and assured that dates were included and in hind sight should have presumed state law was applicable.

The mayors ludicrous statement regarding the necessity of increasing the confiscation of tax payers money to "move the city forward" is proof that he is incompetent and not a capable manager.

The opportunities to reduce spending and cost to the city without adverse impact on "moving forward" are so evident even an inexperienced and weak manager should recognize them. Initiatives not politically popular would be necessary and he may not have a library named for him after he leaves office.

He may be dangerous now, especially to the over 10,000 citizens he concluded were angry, narrow minded on the fringe and misinformed. Perhaps he will better define what "moving forward" means and how each spending initiative contributes to it.

September 8, 2010 at 5:39 a.m.
casey9490 said...

I'm curious what examples you have of Littlefield missing opportunities to "reduce spending and cost to the city without adverse impact on 'moving forward'.

September 8, 2010 at 6:44 a.m.
fairmon said...

casey9490, I'm sure you don't agree with my comments. A look at a few months of who is paid how much for what would be a good start if you are truly interested. I rather not alienate a lot of ciy employees. But, a few quick examples of some unpopular fixes: 1-Right size staffing would be a good start. Most city operations are inefficent and over staffed, a few work hard and are understaffed. There is no excuse for an understaffed police force or fire department. 2-It is not economical to have so many "in house" information systems employees with highly skilled outsources available as needed at less cost. 3-I see no moving forward value in paying someone $103,000 plus benefits annually plus a staff and other expense to install sculptures and other monuments across the city. 4-Compare the pay rates of similar work in the private sector and surrounding areas. 5-There is no economic or "moving foreward" justification for the city owning and subsidizing businesses that pay no property taxes and compete with privately owned businesses. 6-Look at the real estate owned by the city with no near term plans for it and no property tax paid.

Take a tour and do a work time utilization audit of your own. Review an organization chart and salaries. Look at the number of engineers on roll, more were recently added. Look at the ratio of administrative postions per productive worker. I have a bridge for sale to anyone believing the city owning a pharmacy that competes with private pharmacies is better than other options for city employee prescriptions. We don't have a mayor or anyone on the council with the experience or ability to manage a business the size of city government. Many of the improvements around the city are from private initiatives and investments but city leaders will take credit when they can.

September 8, 2010 at 7:54 a.m.
before1999 said...

Harp339 is a very concerned citizen and if he can find out the information he gave as examples, of which I agree totally with, then anyone can find this out. Government information is available to everyone that wants it and its free. As for the election commission, no one knows what they told the groups and as far as I am concerned, they are only Littlefield lackies. For the judge, well Mr. Mayor made another phone call and look at what happened.

September 8, 2010 at 9:27 a.m.

How is it our elected officials and their staffs failed to notice and update the city's recall process when the city charter was reviewed and updated a few years ago? And, how does our Election Commission make such a critical mistake in advising the citizens in it's only process to remove an unpopular elected official?

And some people want more government...

September 8, 2010 at 11:04 a.m.
jimcarwest said...

The judge said that the recall failed because the city charter had never been "enacted," only amended. In 1997, the State enacted a law, governing recall rules for cities and municipalities. A city could change the rules for a recall through a referendum. In 2002 Chattanooga placed a referendum on the ballot to change two things about the charter, choosing to bring forward all the existing charter, which included a lesser number of signatures and number of days allowed for carrying out a petition, thinking this would comply with the 1997 State law. The City Council has since labored under the belief that the City charter was law. Current Election Commission officials informed the RecallRon effort of these rules -- 8964 valid signatures gathered within the 75 days of the recall effort. Petitioners abided by rules as the Election Commission ordered. Comes now the judge to to say that what was brought forward from the existing City charter in 2002 was not an "enactment" but merely an "amendment", which has no force of law. Further, the court accepted that all the signatures were gathered within the 75 day period, being authenticated by the Election Commission and by the court, but 4000 of them were deemed not valid because they did not have the actual date of the signing beside each name. Petitioners were told by the Commission in the middle of the effort that it was not necessary to cite the actual date as long as a signature gathered was within the 75-day period. Each petition sheet containing signatures was stamped by the Election Commission with the date when it was turned in. So the intent of the law, i.e. to guarantee that the signatures were gathered in the prescribed time frame, was perfectly satisfied. The Mayor's slick attorneys seized on this to cheat the people of Chattanooga of their voice in his recall. Last night in the City Council meeting, members were in a consternation. They understood that by relegating this section of the charter to be irrelevant and considered by Judge Hollingsworth to be an “amendment” and not “enacted” law, the entire charter has been irrelevant since 2002. In a panic they directed the City Attorney to rectify this matter immediately. The Mayor has not been recalled because the Judge deemed the City of Chattanooga to be without relevant law to guide its legal affairs. The Judge refused to hear arguments on issues relevant to the case until after his ruling in favor of the Mayor - this to add to the irregularity of the case. 10,000 Chattanoogans were disenfranchised by this ruling, but the Mayor is not off-the-hook. Already he is boasting that it is full-speed ahead with his wreckless tax proposals. This recall effort is only the beginning of nightmares for the mayor.

September 8, 2010 at 11:11 a.m.
FM_33 said...

Hahahahahahaha ........I Told You So !

September 8, 2010 at 12:38 p.m.
FM_33 said...

The man has to much clout and he's hooked up with the big money shakers in the county !

Progressives can't mess with the mack daddy pimp of Chattanooga....* Pimp Littlefield *

September 8, 2010 at 12:41 p.m.
slr3 said...

The mayor may be a fine Christian man & I applaude him for this. He is , however , an incompetent manager and needs to be replaced as he is in the wrong job. He would be a better minister than a Mayor. Give us citizens a break.

Even if the recall effort goes down in flames due to technacalities , the Mayor surely sees this as a vote of no confidence in his leadership. How else can this be interputed??

As to the council members who voted for the Mayor's budget and to increase our property taxes by 19% (they are LADD ,ROBINSON,BERZ,RICO and BENSON)let's remember them in the next election and vote them out.

Also , any council member who sides with the Mayor in issues which will arise in the future should be remembered & voted out at our next opportunity.

September 8, 2010 at 2:23 p.m.
locked99xj said...

I say that we recall him again, this time with the 15,000 votes that we need. If the judge rules against us because we didn't cross the "t" or dot the "i", we will cross the "t" and dot the "i" this time and throw Littlefield's butt out of office.

His wife was apparently handing out Scripture that was from the Old Testament talking about not speaking against the Lord's anointed. This is a democracy and taking Scripture out of context is unwise. This guy arrogance never ceases to amaze me. His picture is next to the definition of narcissist in the dictionary.

September 8, 2010 at 3:30 p.m.
whatever said...

Also , any council member who sides with the Mayor in issues which will arise in the future should be remembered & voted out at our next opportunity.

That seems extreme. Do you believe that the Mayor of Chattanooga is such a terrible person that he is always wrong? I think that's rather biased.

As for how else can this be interpreted, I believe a number of alternate theories have been advanced, ranging from misguided outrage on the part of a select group of voters, to a conspiracy to seize power by some nefarious coalition of interests. Whether or not any of these is true, well, I don't know, but I would not support the Mayor taking it as a vote of no-confidence, for one thing, there's no provision for such that I know about in the city charter or state law. Additionally, as there are only so many thousands of people involved in this effort, versus how many tens of thousands who have remained silent, or who oppose it. There's a reason why some things require more than a simple plurality, or even a bare majority. Certainly the Mayor could resign if he wanted to do so, but can we not respect him for having the principles to not bend in the wind, to do what he thinks is right? He could still be wrong, but I can respect conviction.

I do hope that more voters participate in the next election though. The turnout was rather low.

September 8, 2010 at 4:48 p.m.
JasonMcG said...

I don't think Judge Hollingsworth did Littlefield any favors.

Judge Hollingsworth could have agreed to move the issue to Chancery court instead of Circuit court which would have killed any possibility of an appeal.

Rather, I think the Judge had the insight to see the issue needs to be clarified at the state level.

The state law regarding recalls was modified in 1997, and states explicitly that if a city has a recall provision in their Charter, then the city charter provisions will satisfy the conditions of the recall.

There is a contradiction in the state law that needs to be resolved, regarding when city charter's prevail, when the recall is based on a percentage of the population, and when it is based on a percentage of registered voters. Right now as it sits the state law gives all three as possibilities.

What Hollingsworth effectively did was open the door for this issue to come under greater scrutiny at the state level, instead of just local.

Also, I don't think you can call the ruling a vindication of Littlefield's policies.

The ruling is purely that the recall appears to have failed to meet the criteria under the law, and is definitely not an endorsement of the current administration's path.

If anything the ruling is going to cause every little thing the Mayor and City Council due in the future to come under much greater public scrutiny

September 8, 2010 at 10:48 p.m.
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