When will Chattanooga get a new mayor?

The short answer to the title question? April 15, 2013.

Now, but here are some confounding evidential specimens and alternative theories. Meander with me, will you?

Dude: Oh, man, my thinking about this case had become very uptight.

There is some confusion about seemingly conflicting provisions in the Chattanooga City Charter that speak to citizen recall. From Nooga.com:

The Chattanooga City Charter has two different sections that appear to contradict one other on whether the mayor should be removed immediately or whether he can stay in office until the election to fill his seat, which is set for August 2012.

“We don’t have those answers,” Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said Thursday afternoon. “Today we have more questions than we do answers. We have read the city charter and see it is not well defined.”

Ladd, who under Title 8, Chapter II, Section 8.30 would become interim mayor, said she expects the council will seek legal guidance on how to interpret the two conflicting portions of the city charter that outline how to proceed following a recall.

Do the charter sections really conflict each other? Is it possible that the period of time indicated in Title 8, Chapter II, Section 8.30 is simply the time between the recall election (should the recalled official run, and lose) and the swearing-in of the new mayor? Or, if the incumbent loses, but no one wins, until the next regular election?

Here is a snippet from Title 3, Chapter II, Section 3.18, that seems to affirm the above:

At such election, if some other person than the incumbent receives the highest number of votes, the incumbent shall therefrom be deemed removed from office upon qualification of his successors. In case the party who receives the highest number of votes shall fail to qualify within ten (10) days after receiving notification of election, the office shall be deemed vacant.

So, when the incumbent is removed from office, or if the office is vacant, the city council chair becomes interim mayor; at minimum, during those ten days between the election itself and the pronouncement that a winner other than an incumbent has qualified.

But here is the other section:

In the case of the mayor’s death, resignation, inability to serve for any reason, recall or removal of his or her residence from the city, upon such fact being certified by resolution of the council, the chairperson of the council shall become the interim mayor upon being administered the oath and making bond. Such person shall hold the office of the mayor on an interim basis until a new mayor is elected as provided in this Charter and qualified. The interim mayor shall have the authority to cast a vote to break a tie in the city council.

The troublesome clause in 8-2-8.30 is “until a new mayor is elected.” If that has just happened as described previously, then there is no room in the calendar to squeeze in the council chairperson as interim. It seems moot; or perhaps some would use it to suggest that the interim term begins much sooner.

I think it’s wise to step back and look at the intent of each section. 3-2-3.18 is solely about the recall process. 8-2-8.30 much more generally provides the succession plan in case the mayor is unable to serve for a number of reasons. It just happens to list “recall” as one of the reasons, rightly or not. In every other scenario—”death, resignation, inability to serve for any reason, […] or removal of his or her residence from the city”—the succession makes perfect sense. It simply seems to me that “recall” doesn’t belong in the list of reasons except as interpreted in light of the election outcome. Therefore I lean pretty heavily toward using 3-2-3.18 as the basis for setting the order of events.

There’s more calendar trouble with the interpretation of the Charter, though. 3-2-3.18 also states the following:

If by their certificate the petition is shown to be sufficient, the said board of election commissioners shall at once order and fix a date for holding said election not less than thirty (30) days nor more than sixty (60) days from the date of their certificate showing that a sufficient petition is filed.

The petition was certified on November 17, 2011. That should put the election between December 17 and January 16, 2012. And Councilman Andraé McGary asked about that at the election commission meeting. But Chris Clem, attorney for the Hamilton County Election Commission, said “state law ‘does not allow cities to choose the date of election’ after a successful recall petition. He said that section of the city charter would be invalid.”

I am really quite concerned about multiple parts of our city charter being assumed or rendered invalid at various times. Which parts really comprise the charter? Do we just choose as is convenient for one cause or another? (I’m not suggesting that was done in selecting the election date; it’s a more general question.) In the case of the two sections discussed above, can we just deem one invalid and instantly solve our problem? I fear it would create more problems. But this is going down another path; back to the question at hand.

The earliest we could theoretically have had a new mayor is the day before yesterday, since the recall petition was certified then. Another opportunity would have been in the December-January timeframe, if we followed the Charter in setting an election date. And I suppose it’s possible that we could have a new mayor in August of 2012.

But we won’t really have a recall election in August of 2012, even though the Election Commission has said we will. There are still a live petition and a possible appeal on the ruling that made Thursday’s decision possible. More legal action is inevitable, and will take a long time. And here’s yet another alternate path: we somehow do end up having the election, and Mayor Littlefield manages to turn out enough supporting votes to hang on a few more months.

All of this taken together gets us to the March 2013 election, and the April 15, 2013 swearing-in date of Chattanooga’s new mayor. (I hear you: next time you’ll just take the short answer. But thanks for reading.)

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