The Hamilton County Election Commission chairman said Wednesday that state officials put him in a compromising situation when they advised him to call a special meeting to review a petition aimed at repealing the city's newly approved domestic partner benefit ordinance.
On the advice of state election officials, who were approached for advice by opponents of the ordinance expanding benefits to domestic partners of city employees, Walden scheduled the meeting even before Chattanooga City Council members were set to vote on the ordinance. They voted 5-3 on Tuesday to approve the benefit expansion.
"If you want something, you follow the procedures. You don't politicize this office," Mike Walden said after the called meeting. "In 15 years nothing has ever happened like this before and I want to make sure everyone is painfully aware that it never happens again."
Walden questioned whether the public would think the election commission, made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, had an opinion on the ordinance -- or the petition.
Election commissioners unanimously approved the petition after reviewing the document for just a few minutes.
Their vote gives Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency two weeks to collect the signatures of at least 4,460 registered voters who want to force the city to repeal the ordinance or put the ordinance to a vote on the August 2014 ballot.
State election officials said it makes no difference what the ordinance is about, but they recommended that the election commission hold its meeting to avoid a lawsuit and to ensure residents have the right to act within the bounds of the City Charter.
The City Charter gives residents two weeks after an ordinance is passed to collect signatures to request a repeal or referendum vote. However, state law says the election commission has 30 days to review such a petition.
The contradiction puts the election commission in an odd place, State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said.
"You could roll the dice and say state law trumps here," Goins said. "Had the election commission not acted, I think they could have been sued for not doing their duty and I think they would have been in violation of their duty and the [city] charter. If you're hindering a process you've failed at your mission."
Walden said that after he spoke with Goins last week about how to proceed, he asked the state official to put the advice in writing. Goins sent the letter Tuesday.
"The elections commission is not statutorily required to make these accommodations, but the refusal could sabotage the opportunity provided by the Charter," he wrote to Walden. "Any delay could result in legal action taken against the election commission."
Mark West, president of Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency and tea party leader, said he understands the conflict between the City Charter and state law. That's why he hired an attorney to work with the state on the wording of the petition. West said Hamilton County Election Commission attorney Chris Clem also told him to get advice from the state.
After the meeting, Walden and Clem could be heard arguing with one another in loud voices.
West, who was involved in the failed effort to recall former Mayor Ron Littlefield, said he learned plenty from that experience.
"We thought we had done everything by the book. The whole issue that put us there was the conflict [between the city and state]," West said. "The group that suffers is the people."
West said he believes he can collect the right amount of signatures needed for this petition to succeed. He plans to meet with church leaders and other groups for support, and will set up places for supporters to sign the petition.
Wednesday's meeting started out poorly after none of the election commissioners had a copy of the domestic partner benefits ordinance. Walden stopped the meeting and asked for someone from the City Attorney's office to bring a copy to the election commission. No one from the City Attorney's office was at the meeting. City Attorney Wade Hinton later said he did not think anyone needed to be there. The meeting resumed after a copy of the ordinance was faxed to commissioners.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...