published Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Chattanooga considers setting recall boundaries


by Cliff Hightower
City Attorney Mike McMahan
City Attorney Mike McMahan
Photo by Angela Lewis.

BY THE NUMBERS

50: Percentage of voters in last mayoral election needed to spur a mayoral recall election under the City Charter

15: Percentage of "registered voters" needed to force a recall election under state law

Chattanooga City Attorney Mike McMahan said this week he would like for the city to change its charter to match state law on recall elections.

"I think the best thing would be to follow the state law like everyone else," he said.

The City Council is set to start discussing such a change in the upcoming weeks, after years of court battles by groups trying to oust Mayor Ron Littlefield.

But Jim Folkner, leader of Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, said he thinks it would be premature to change the City Charter now. His group is awaiting a state Appeals Court decision on whether state law or the City Charter should control how many voter signatures it would take to trigger a recall. No hearing has been scheduled.

"They should just leave it as it is and let the judges rule on it," he said.

Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth ruled in February that state law trumps the City Charter.

State law says it takes 15 percent of all registered voters in the city to have a recall election, while the City Charter says it takes 50 percent of voters who voted in the last mayoral election. Those thresholds created controversy in court over the past several years.

The recallers cited the charter and said they needed only 9,000 votes to oust Littlefield. Under state law, the number was more than 15,000.

McMahan said the city needs to draft an ordinance that could be placed on the November ballot as a referendum. That's the only way to change the charter.

He said the charter doesn't mention recalling council members, so now is the time to fix that, as well. He's recommending a threshold of 15 percent of registered voters in a district.

Councilman Peter Murphy, chairman of the Legal, Legislative and Public Safety Committee, said the simplest solution would be just to say the charter is "governed by state law" for recall elections.

"It would prevent a conflict in the future," he said.

Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd wants more discussion. She said the threshold needs to be low enough so that a recall is possible but not too easy.

She doesn't like 15 percent of registered voters.

"I think that puts it fairly high," she said. "It needs to be attainable."

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.hightower.

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