published Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Chattanooga City Council OKs suit over wording of domestic partner ballot question

Chattanooga officials want a judge to decide immediately what language should be on the August ballot for voters deciding whether city employees' domestic partners should have city benefits.

In an 8-1 vote Tuesday night, the City Council OK'd a lawsuit asking that the Hamilton County Election Commission use the city's language on the question of repealing the city's domestic partner ordinance

City attorneys claim the current ballot language, written by those who organized a repeal ordinance, is too vague.

But state officials say the city is wasting its time because state law says the petitioners get to write the question.

The council's act follows a special called Hamilton County Election Commission meeting Friday where commissioners approved a 15-word question: "Shall the city of Chattanooga's 'domestic partnership' ordinance (Ordinance No. 12781) be adopted?" The voter can check for or against the ordinance.

Assistant City Attorney Phil Noblett told the council Tuesday that wording doesn't properly explain the question and said the city charter allows his office to write the language. Noblett asked the council's permission to file suit in Hamilton County Circuit Court and join with Chattanooga police Lt. Corliss Cooper's lawsuit, filed Monday, which also challenges the language as written.

A local judge would have today and Thursday to decide whether to do anything -- the ballots are scheduled to be sent for printing Monday.

State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said the city is wrong. He cited a state law that says the petition question which called for the referendum must be used on the ballot, unless the question is more than 300 words.

Recall leaders argued to the council that the city attorney's 170-word summary ignores state law and is also confusing and full of legal jargon.

"[Our] question was brief and very clear and notably approved by the Election Commission," said Mark West, president of Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency. "... I would respectfully submit that you have just wasted the taxpayers money."

The council approved the domestic partner ordinance in November but the citizens group collected enough signatures on petitions to force a public vote.

Council hears Chattem PILOT pact

Next week, the City Council will vote whether to approve a four-year property tax break to Chattem Chemicals for its St. Elmo campus expansion, where the company plans to invest $6 million and add 25 employees.

The payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement negotiated with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will offer Chattem, a division of Sun Pharma, a break on city and county taxes that will start at 100 percent and shrink to 50 percent by the fourth year. The company still must pay the school portion of its property taxes.

An additional five-year incremental tax-break option kicks in if the company expands further, adding 25 additional jobs.

While council members spoke in favor of the plan, several questioned the quality of the jobs. Chattem officials said the median salary range would be between $38,000 and $41,000.

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

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

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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