For several months, Chattanooga residents have heard about the effort to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield—and more recently, to add City Council members Jack Benson and Manuel Rico as recall targets. The August election provided a means for the organizers to reach a large number of voters, and I congratulate them on the apparent momentum gained in their efforts.
I wish, however, that the recall drive came with clear objectives beyond the triple ouster. Let’s have a discussion about what the city needs as a replacement. More specifically, give us an idea of who would sign up for the often thankless task of leading our city forward. Are candidates being recruited, vetted, and prepared? Is a defined platform being written? In short, what is the plan if the recall is successful?
A personal anecdote suggests that some of the recall effort’s supporters do not understand what the recall sets in motion. A kind individual came up to me with the clipboard and asked me to sign, and after I explained that I could not, I casually asked about any potential candidates that would be running in the election. The clipboard-bearer had no idea that the recall would mean a new election, nor that the incumbents were eligible to run for reelection. Was this an isolated incident? Perhaps. But comments on local news websites seem to suggest a more widespread knowledge deficit.
Another common misperception is the length of our suffering under this administration. On Chattanoogan.com, Mariah Smith asserted, in response to Littlefield’s son Zack, that the “only thing ridiculous about this recall is that it didn’t happen a lot sooner.” What? How much sooner did you want it? Was March 2009 not a good time for us to reflect on the previous four years (more for Benson and Rico), and, you know, vote for someone else if we weren’t satisfied?
Let me make this absolutely clear: I firmly and fully support the right of citizens to initiate a recall of an elected official when that official has egregiously violated the public trust. It is a necessary process that should be protected and upheld.
And here’s another thing to make sure is given the full light of day: I was a candidate for Mayor of Chattanooga in the March 2009 election, until I withdrew and gave my endorsement to Rob Healy. I did not run on an anti-Littlefield platform, but technically I was, by asking voters to choose me, Littlefield’s opponent. So why am I questioning a recall drive a few months later? Shouldn’t I be happy that someone else is trying to “throw the bums out”?
I’ll tell you why: I entered the 2009 race out of concern that there would not be any other candidate besides Mayor Littlefield. Rob Healy’s residency qualification was under legal review, and I was unaware that Thomas Smith planned to run. I wanted to make sure that we Chattanoogans had a conversation about the merits of re-electing Littlefield, rather than simply doing so by default. As it turned out, we had that conversation; and though most of the voters did not show up to act on it, a majority of those that did chose Littlefield for a second term. Likewise, Councilmen Benson and Rico easily won their respective bids. (Benson was unopposed.)
If you wanted to pull these three men from office, that was the time. If you are signing the recall petition now, and did not vote in that election* (and don’t have a valid excuse), then I have no choice but to—wait, I’ll give you a second chance. Maybe you voted for Littlefield last year and have had a change of heart. Maybe you didn’t bother to vote last year, but are genuinely engaged in the process now, having experienced a civic awakening. If you fit either of these descriptions, I ask that you also lend your energy to promoting a future solution, rather than just tearing down what you perceive as the problem.
If you have not signed the recall petition, but have thought about it, think again. I invite you to consider addressing your City Council representative and the mayor about the real problems we face. Do it in an arranged meeting, not in the open time at the end of City Council sessions. The latter is for addressing the entire Council about items under their control but not on the day’s agenda. Arrange a community meeting in your neighborhood, invite your government officials—whether you agree with them or not—and talk things out. If that doesn’t work, do it again, and invite more people. This is the way to get things done.
Our civic pride, once wounded by dirty air and declining industry, has made impressive headway on a positive trajectory. We are in a position to excel. Yes, we still have problems: violent crime, wasteful spending, shortcomings in accountability, to name a few. But we will not solve these problems by removing a few elected officials with no plan to install an improved set of leaders. We could end up with worse; but the likely outcome is that the incumbents will be re-elected. And that means we will have wasted a lot of resources on foolishness, and that these same individuals will be that much more hardened against dialogue with concerned citizens. Is that what we want?
*Another commenter in the Chattanoogan.com thread says that “in order to have your signature validated on a recall petition you have to live in the city, and have voted in the last election. If you didn’t vote, then your petition signature doesn’t count.” This is incorrect. Signatures are counted if they belong to a currently registered voter in Chattanooga, whether or not the signer voted in the last election.