The Illusion of Democracy in Chattanooga

The citizens in Chattanooga seem to have been given the intentional illusion that we have the power to directly act on our own behalf to change things through our city government. After all, three forms of direct democracy (Recall, Referendum and Initiative) exist in our City Charter as possible avenues for citizen-led efforts to directly challenge our government, write or overturn legislation, and call for new elections when our representatives fail us. With the recall of Mayor Littlefield, we saw that such efforts are not so clear cut. Now, with local residents attempting to yet again file a petition for an initiative (a process that allows citizens to pass their own legislation by petitioning the people), our own City Attorney is again arguing that our City Charter does not have any authority. Believe it or not, this is not the first time this has all happened. I guess those who do not know their history really are doomed to repeat it:

In September of 2002, a group of business leaders and former political office holders came together to form the "Save Our Streets" (SOS) organization to utilize a petition drive to fight the conversion of McCallie Avenue and MLK Boulevard/Bailey Avenue from one-way streets to two-way streets. The petition drive was in the form of an initiative - a citizen-led effort to pass legislation following the law set forth in our own City Charter. According to the City Charter, the citizens needed to gather the signatures of registered voters in an amount equal to 25% of the number of voters who participated in the most recent Mayoral election. According to the City Charter, that number was close to 8,000 signatures.

The community leaders that formed the SOS were the "grass-tops", they were business leaders, professionals and politicians: Charles Gearhiser, engineer Jack Anderson, former Mayor Pat Rose, business leader Merv Pregulman, former Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Bob Elmore, as well as former City Council representative Marti Rutherford. They were spearheaded by an attorney who interpreted the law for them and provided a legal petition for their use.
Save Our Streets Group Hits 2-Way Street Conversion
Tuesday, September 17, 2002

I believe that Littlefield and several others have a VERY good memory about how this played out. Littlefield is known for carrying a grudge and he came into DIRECT confrontation with this group:

Friday, October 18, 2002

After the group made their debut, petitions were hosted at local businesses on the streets on which the planned conversions were to take place - notably in the parking lot of Wally's. After several months the group began to pick up some steam and Mayor Corker reached out with the Public Relations olive branch to "compromise" with the group
Save Our Streets To Continue Petition Drive
Monday, December 02, 2002

Mayor Corker's office came up with a "compromise" that the SOS crew rejected, opting to instead continue to fight through the petition. Marti Rutherford publicly described the compromise being offered by City Hall as "propaganda".
Save Our Streets Still Fighting Two-Way Conversion
Friday, February 21, 2003

After the SOS petitioners gathered the number of signatures required under our City Charter, the Election Commission Attorney from the time, Jerry Summers, said that State Law prevails, not the charter....
Jerry Summers has an interesting quote in the article:
Under the state law, the group must file its petition and then has only 75 days to get the large number of names - 15 percent of the registered voters in the city. Attorney Summers said the law is structured "so that it makes it very difficult to ever have a recall in Hamilton County."
Remember, this is the same Jerry Summers that is currently serving on the Election Commission and has spoken out against the recall for purely partisan reasons every opportunity he had.
Summers Says SOS Petition Appears Invalid
Group Seeking To Stop Two-Way Streets May Have To Start Over
Tuesday, April 29, 2003

According to the City Charter, SOS only had to gather about 8,000 signatures - according to state law that number rises to 13,566. After the group gathered 9,000 signatures, far higher than the number required by our City Charter, in the required 75 days, they were told that state law prevailed. Neat trick, huh?
Two-Way City Street Foes To Continue Fighting
Plan To Wage New Petition Drive
Tuesday, May 13, 2003

So there is a trend here. The City Charter, the foundational document of our city that enshrines the rights and privileges of citizens and provides the basis by which we have a government, can elect officials to office, can provide for the general welfare and collectively determine the very conditions of our lives and our communities, has been routinely dangled in front of We The People as a means for us to directly engage in the democratic process. It would appear that this is done with the expectation that we will not be able to actually meet the Charter's requirements for direct democracy. And then, when the citizens have met these expectations, as was the case with the SOS initiative and the Recall of Mayor Littlefield, our City government has retreated back behind State Law with it's near impossible requirements.

There is a name for this: bait and switch.

Our City Charter has the power for citizens to be elected to office by the voters, but not the power to allow the citizens themselves to call for a new election when we disapprove of our own government's policies and direction. Our City Charter has the power for those citizens who are elected to office to craft, pass and uphold laws, but not for the citizens themselves to do so when our government refuses to act in accord with our will. It would appear therefore that in Chattanooga, we have government over the people, not government of the people. The people themselves are not sovereign, but the politicians we elect are. The people may only act indirectly - through politicians who we elect and then make decisions "on our behalf" - but not directly through channels of broad participation beyond the ballot.