It won't be happening, after all.
An August recall election for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield will not take place, after Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth ruled for a second time that state law trumped the city's charter when it comes to recalling elected officials.
The ruling does all but put an end to the recall saga, which has stretched out for more than 18 months. Although Littlefield has only one year left in his second and final term as mayor, recallers will now have 30 days to file an appeal in the case.
"This is just one of those déjà vu moments; it seems like we all went through this before," Littlefield said, following the decision. "I hope the recallers will take this judgment to heart and let this matter end here. This has been a huge waste of time and a tremendous distraction to the community when we have more important things to do."
Hollingsworth's ruling, which came after three hours of argument from both sides in the case, hinged on his belief that tackling issues of constitutionality should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
"Constitutional challenges don't come along very often, which is a good thing because they're complicated," Hollingsworth said. "But one thing that is clear is that Supreme Court and other courts have issued decision after decision saying that, unless it is absolutely necessary, courts are to refrain from deciding constitutional issues … The state statute applies to the recall effort."
That statute, which requires a three-step process in order to effectively recall an elected official, also required a higher number of petition signatures than the number validated by the Hamilton County Election Commission. Tom Greenholtz, attorney for Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel law firm representing Littlefield, underlined the discrepancy between signatures collected and signatures required during his argument, calling it illegal.
"Make no mistake about this, 14,854 signatures are needed," he said. "Make no mistake that number is high above the 9,700 validated signatures received … The recall petition is fundamentally flawed. It comes woefully short of the amount of signatures needed under state law."
Jim Folkner, leader of the group Citizens to Recall Mayor Ron Littlefield, and Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, administrator for the election commission, were the only two witnesses called to the stand to provide testimony during the hearing. During her testimony, Mullis-Morgan said the election commission had incurred at least $21,000 in overtime costs counting petition signatures, bringing the total cost of the recall to more than $150,000.
Following the ruling, Folkner did not rule out the possibility of an appeal. Folkner said Hollingsworth did not answer his questions sufficiently and added that the judge should have recused himself from the case because of contributions made by members of the law firm representing Littlefield to his campaign in 2006—an accusation Hollingsworth said was not a factor because of a one-year-recusal he instituted on himself for cases involving the firm after coming into his seat.
Folkner still took issue with the judge's decision.
"The problem with this whole process is that we did a great petition drive," he said "If we did another recall now, what do we tell people—that Mr. Littlefield or someone else is going to hire very expensive attorneys and go right back to court? That's not a good solution."
As recallers handed out fliers titled "A Brief History of Corruption in the Littlefield Administration" following the ruling, the mayor called the recall experience a "great trial" on his personal and political life.
"It's been a wrenching situation," he said. "Politically, I'm a term-limited mayor; I'm not bulletproof. But this is not the way I would want to wind up my term as mayor."
Updated @ 6:54 p.m. on 02/10/12 to correct a grammatical error.