published Monday, February 24th, 2014

Chris Anderson's lawsuit questions Tennessee's recall statute

WHAT'S NEXT

The first hearing in Anderson's lawsuit is set for March 10 before Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth.

QUESTION ON THE PETITION

Shall Councilman Chris Anderson who represents the Seventh District of the City of Chattanooga be recalled?

Poll
Should Chattanooga's recall process be changed?

When a handful of political groups fought to recall former Mayor Ron Littlefield in 2010, their reasons varied — some were unhappy that he raised property taxes and others bitter over a hike in sewer rates.

There were many reasons voters wanted to unseat Littlefield, says Jim Folkner, who spearheaded Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, but he said it didn't matter: A recall of a public official doesn't have to state a reason under state law and local ordinance.

During that two-year legal battle, Littlefield didn't challenge whether the state or local ordinances on recalls were too broad. But one of his attorneys, Hal North, says today that he would have asked the courts to rule on that issue if a state appeals court hadn't tossed out the recall petition on technical errors in September 2012.

Now District 7 Councilman Chris Anderson is doing just that. Anderson claims the motive behind an ongoing petition drive to recall him is because he is gay, and he says current state law is flawed because it allows such discrimination.

Historically, case law shows recalls of public officials should be limited to cases where a politician has been convicted of a crime and refuses to leave office, according to one national expert.

"The recall election was really intended to be a means to remove a politician for high crimes or misdemeanors," said James Brooks, director of city solutions at the National League of Cities. "That is a high standard but, one could argue, a reasonable one."

Anderson has filed suit to block the recall petition and asks that the court strike down the state statute, arguing that it is unconstitutionally vague and against public policy. Chattanooga's recall ordinance mirrors the state law.

His attorney, Stuart James, said it will be up to a judge to decide whether Tennessee voters have too much leeway to boot a public official.

"I don't think it was intended to recall someone after nine months of office," James said. "It undermines the electoral process."

But Charlie Wysong, a local activist helping with the recall efforts, said Anderson is trying to take the focus away from public dissatisfaction with his performance in office. Voters should have the right to recall a politician if they are dissatisfied, he said.

  • photo
    Chris Anderson has filed suit to halt a petition calling for his recall.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

"I don't think it's right," he said. "They're saying they don't want people to exercise their right for a recall."

•••

The Hamilton County Election Commission approved the recall Feb. 13. Under the state statute, if Anderson's opponents collect 1,600 signatures -- 15 percent of the registered voters in District 7 -- within 55 days, the referendum could go on the August ballot. If they collect the required number in 75 days, the question could be on the November ballot.

Some petition supporters say they knew they were electing a gay councilman but argue that Anderson, 33, hasn't followed through on his campaign promises. Others say they disagree with Anderson's bill to extend benefits to the gay and straight domestic partners of city employees.

At the election commission meeting the day of the vote, James argued that the question on the petition is vague and gives no reason for a recall.

"What if this petition was recalling Moses Freeman and said we're recalling him because he's black? Or what if it's against Carol Berz? Would you recall Carol Berz because she's a woman?" James asked the commission. "Would you approve this petition? I don't think so."

Several commissioners agreed the language was vague but said their only role was to decide if the petition's wording conforms with state law.

"I'm hoping the Legislature will address this at some point," said board member Jerry Summers. "This statute wasn't addressed in the Littlefield case that went up with a tremendous amount of litigation."

James said he hopes the lawsuit will persuade the General Assembly and City Council to consider changing the law and ordinance.

City Attorney Wade Hinton said city officials haven't asked him to study the recall ordinance.

Folkner said residents should be insulted that Anderson is trying to limit the voters' right to recall. He argued that the standard to recall only public officials who commit crimes is unreasonable and extreme.

"If public officials are doing something illegal, the police are supposed to arrest them," he said. "But the purpose of a recall is if they don't like what you're doing on the issues you ran on, they have the right to make you run again."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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