Chattanooga Unity Group Concerned About Decision To Require Runoff In Municipal Elections
NASHVILLE — Marie Mott, who led local protests in response to the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, got the most votes for the District 8 seat on the Chattanooga City Council last week.
But she hasn’t won yet.
Mott and incumbent nominee Marvene Noel will face off in a runoff election on Sept. 15, an extra step mandated by a city council resolution this year, which Unity Group is questioning.
Mott received 557 votes to Noel’s 341. The run-off was triggered because Mott failed to secure a majority by securing more than 50% of the vote.
“While we do not dispute the validity of the need for a special election, we believe the process identified in Resolution 31030 was not properly communicated to voters,” Unity Group Co-Chair Eric Adams said. in an email to the Chattanooga Times. Free press. “It could very well have been a determining factor in the outcome of the election. Voters have the right to have clear and accurate facts that help them to be as informed and educated as possible about the election and the issues.
“The city charter should not be left to interpretation,” Adams said. “These should be rules of governance that all citizens of the city can easily refer to and discern. That is not the case today, and until it is, the protections, processes and procedures are likely to be in jeopardy; the fairness and integrity of elections may be called into question.”
The Unity Group was formed half a century ago to encourage black Chattanoogans to run for office, unify disparate community groups and push for economic power. Mott and Noel are black.
The procedural change was made on February 8 in a 7-1 council vote, establishing the rules for the District 8 special election. Previously, the person with the most votes was declared the winner of these elections, whether or not the candidate obtains a majority.
This time the council instead demanded a majority vote, to match the norm for mayoral and ordinary council elections.
By the previous standard, Mott would have been elected.
Last week’s nonpartisan election for District 8 was set to fill the remainder of the term of former Councilman Anthony Byrd, who resigned from the nine-member council to become the new City Court clerk in Chattanooga. The contest was placed on the same ballot as contests for county-level general elections, including county mayor as well as political primaries to determine candidates for state and federal office.
The run-off will be a stand-alone contest for voters in Chattanooga areas including Alton Park, Avondale, Bushtown, Courthouse, Downtown, East Chattanooga, East Lake, Eastside and Ridgedale.
Mott, president of civic engagement for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County branch NAACP, received 46.33% of the 1,202 ballots cast in Thursday’s election.
Noel, who had previously competed with several others to win the March 8 interim nomination to represent the seat until the election, won about 28.1% of the vote. Noel is a past president of the neighborhood association Orchard Knob and sits on the board of directors of Park Ridge Health System.
Third place, Malarie B. Marsh, will not participate in the second round.
At the same meeting in February in which the city council voted to require candidates for the special electoral council to receive a majority of votes to win, members also voted 6 to 2 against requiring a pledge of the person they nominated to fill Byrd’s seat not to run for the seat.
They ended up appointing Noel to the seat on March 8. She said shortly after that she intended to run for the seat.
Although the board has no legal authority to prevent the appointee from seeking the seat, verbal commitment has sometimes been requested in the past so as not to give a appointee an unfair advantage over other candidates.
Mott was a leader of the Chattanooga Black Lives Matter protest movement and still has charges pending from that time. She is scheduled to appear Aug. 24 before Judge Don W. Poole on one count of disorderly conduct, one count of obstructing a highway, one count of reckless fire and two counts of vandalism.
Mott has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which are misdemeanors.
Mott took to Facebook in July 2020 to acknowledge removing the flag from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office outside the downtown jail and then burning it during a protest.
“I took down the flag that belongs to the sheriff from the flagpole in front of the county jail and burned it,” Mott said.
Efforts to reach her for this story were unsuccessful.
A DEPARTURE FROM THE PAST
In response to Adams’ criticism, former council chairman Chip Henderson, still a member of the Lookout Valley council, said in a phone interview on Sunday that he thought the change to a plurality vote was necessary. .
Henderson said after Byrd announced he was stepping down and before anyone announced he was running to replace him, he began researching “how the charter actually dealt with the councilor’s replacement.”
Henderson also asked a staffer to remove board minutes from past cases involving the departure of a board member.
“It was quite simple, they would be replaced by the majority of the existing council and they would have a special election at the next available election,” Henderson said.
“Now that hasn’t resolved a trickle one way or the other,” Henderson said. “So looking at the minutes and the process of the previous councils, one thing they did, they asked the candidate or the replacement to make a commitment not to stand for election. What I was trying to to do was simply to establish a process, present some recommendations to the board.
One was the advice asking the person seeking to be a custodian to pledge not to run. His fellow board members refused.
“The other recommendation was that we give this election the same dignity as the other eight of us, and that would be winning with 50% plus one,” Henderson said. “The remaining eight members of the board won with a majority vote, so I thought it was important that the seat had the same dignity, that the election had the same dignity.”
The only invalid vote came from Councilwoman Jenny Hill of North Chattanooga, who said she preferred “ranked choice” voting, which allows voters to select more than one candidate, in ranked order, and their choices are used to conduct an “instant second round” among candidates to find one with majority support.
“The reason I had concerns was that the run-off election is tough on the candidate and it’s also tough to just get voters back to the polls,” Hill said. “So ranked choice voting is something that I see as a positive avenue to help us get voters to participate in elections and feel like their votes really matter. And I say that for all [city] elections.”
In two 2008 special elections for city council, candidates won by having a plurality of votes, not a majority, according to a review of past special council elections by Chattanooga City Attorney Phil Noblett, that he provided to Hamilton County Elections Administrator Scott Allen. and Henderson.
EARLY VOTE FOR RESCUE
Allen said in an email to the Times Free Press on Monday that early voting was scheduled for Aug. 26 through Sept. 26. 10, with times and location to be determined.
Noel told the Times Free Press that she was disappointed with the voter turnout last week.
“I feel good for the second round,” she said. “I will continue to work hard to retain my seat and serve the people of District 8 and bring District 8 to where it needs to be.
“I would have liked more registered voters to show up and vote. I’m not sure why they didn’t, but that’s an area we probably need to work on. We’ll go around and try to figure out which direction we’re going to go and how we’re going to deal with it, but hey, I’m here to win it. Period.”
Journalists David Floyd and La Shawn Pagán contributed to this report.