published Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Hamilton County election officials quarrel over recall election lawsuit


by Cliff Hightower

A debate flared up in the Hamilton County Election Commission on Wednesday morning when one commissioner accused the body and its attorney of stepping over its boundaries by naming the state attorney general in a lawsuit.

Election Commissioner Jerry Summers told other commissioners he thought trying to prove a state statute on recalls as unconstitutional went too far and was best left for attorneys hired by the mayoral recall movement.

"I was never really asked if we should be defending the unconstitutionality of the state constitution," Summers said. "We don't need to be in this fight the way we've been sucked into it."

But Mike Walden, chairman of the Election Commission, said Election Commission attorney Chris Clem did not overstep any boundaries by including the state attorney general in a recall suit brought on by Mayor Ron Littlefield.

"I think he did exactly what we told him to do," Walden said.

The commission at the end of the meeting voted 3-1 that Clem took appropriate action and should defend the Election Commission within any means necessary. Commissioner James Anderson voted no, while Summers abstained. Both are Democrats. The three other commissioners are Republicans.

The debate comes just weeks before Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth is set to decide whether to issue an injunction to stop a recall election of Littlefield in August.

The Election Commission voted in November to certify recall petitions and it set the August election. Last month, Littlefield sued the Election Commission in order to put the brakes on the recall.

The recall effort started about a year and a half ago when three groups -- Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, Chattanooga Organized for Action and the Chattanooga Tea Party -- began collecting signatures. Their issues included increased property taxes and stormwater fees and heightened gang activity.

Clem filed a response to Littlefield's lawsuit last week that named the state attorney general as an involved party. Clem said he has reason to doubt the state law is constitutional because it excludes Davidson County from the law.

Clem said Wednesday he included the attorney general as a party in the lawsuit because he was told there would be a quicker response. He said he was just following what he felt was the direction of the Election Commission.

"I was directed both publicly and privately to defend you," he said.

Summers told the commissioners that besides the constitutionality issue he also had problems with the merits of recallers on trying to oust an elected official.

He said some of the reasons brought up to recall could scare people from running as candidates in the future.

"A vocal minority should not be the one to control the election," Summers said.

But Walden said the Election Commission's concerns cannot be centered around the merits of the recall since the state law or city charter does not give any direction on those types of concerns.

"I don't know and I don't care," Walden said.

In the end, Summers said he thought voting against the measure was a moot point since it already was in the court system and the state attorney general had been named in the suit.

"I think the horse has left the barn," Summers said.

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