Chattanooga’s mayoral recall has taken a turn into a joint constitutional crisis and linguistic nightmare, as the election commission, city council and (eventually) the courts will have to grapple with an almost unheard of problem — what does a “recall” mean?
The issue is that a section of the city’s charter holds that in case the mayor is unable to serve for a host of reasons, the chair of the council becomes interim mayor. One of the reasons cited is simply “recall.” The council, commission and others are debating whether the phrase recall means removed from office after a retention or new election vote or ordered to face a new election or retention vote due to petitioners gathering enough signatures to get a recall on the ballot.
Apparently, there is a lot of support for the second position, which would mean that Mayor Ron Littlefield would be immediately ejected from office, and would not be able to regain his job until the election scheduled in August. I’ve never seen any state or municipality have a recall law that ejects people based solely on handing in petitions. Perhaps it exists, but it seems like an unprecedented, and potentially dangerous, interpretation.
The problem of what the word recall means is one I re-discover with every time I explain the history and use of the recall (Talking Points Memo discussed this same issue once, but I can’t find the link). The term recall appears to mean two separate things at the same time. In one sense, it encompasses just the act of qualifying the removal vote. But it also means that the elected official is kicked out of office (the official is said to be “recalled”). To avoid this problem, I use the clumsy terms “recalled and removed” and “recalled and sustained.” Otherwise, it is hard to explain how, for example, 32 state legislators were recalled, but 17 lost their jobs.