photo by John Wilson
Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth on Friday afternoon ruled that the effort to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield was invalid and he canceled a planned special mayoral election in August to replace him.
He said the city had not properly enacted the recall provision in its charter and said, even if it had, the city did not have power to set up a two-step recall provision instead of a three-step plan. Under a three-step plan set out in state law, there is a recall petition drive, an election on whether or not to recall the official, then an election to choose a successor.
The judge, who earlier had a ruling in favor of the mayor that was set aside on appeal, heard three hours of argument, then adjourned for lunch before rendering his decision.
The recall group has 30 days in which to appeal.
Mayor Littlefield said afterward the recall effort had been "a massive waste of time and money." He said it had been "wrenching" for him and his family.
His wife, Lanis, was with him at the hearing.
He said recalls ought not to be waged on issues of policy.
Attorney Tom Greenholtz said citizens carrying out the recall effort failed to meet certain provisions, including not dating many of the pages and not meeting the number of signatures required by state law.
Recall leader Jim Folkner, who got into the case just Thursday and acted as his own lawyer, said the recall group followed every directive of the Election Commission, including being told that the lesser number of names required by the city charter applied. He said the group was advised that dates were not necessary.
Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, election administrator, said there were a number of costs associated with the recall, including $21,000 in overtime and $114,000 in staff time. Officials said earlier the legal bill for attorney Chris Clem is above $20,000 dealing with the recall - making the total recall cost above $155,000.
Mr. Folkner sought to have Judge Hollingsworth recuse himself, saying he got 42 percent of his campaign contributions from the Chambliss Bahner law firm that represents the mayor. He said he had already ruled against the recall group once and that he had asked to have the case again though it was assigned the second time to Judge Marie Williams.
Judge Hollingsworth denied he asked for the case, saying, "My life would be a lot easier if I did not have it. I can't punt because things are difficult." He said Judge Williams noted that he had already been on the case and "in accordance with local rules transferred it to me."
He said he had not worked with any of the Chambliss Bahner attorneys on the case except briefly with Rich Hitchcock. He said he did not handle any of the firm's cases for a year and still does not hear cases involving lawyers in the firm he worked closely with. He said he sometimes rules for the firm's lawyers and sometimes against.
He added, "I never really looked at the contributions." On a statement that he got much more funding than his opponent, he said, "I don't know - he had a TV ad and I couldn't afford one."
Attorney Greenholtz said the city charter section regarding recalls had never been "enacted," though attorney Clem and Mr. Folkner said it had, including a restatement of the entire city charter in 2002 and printing of the full charter in the newspaper at the time.
Attorney Clem attacked the constitutionality of the state law on recalls, and a representative from the state attorney general's office was present to defend it. She said it appears that the election office on the recall followed part of state law and part of the city charter.
City Attorney Mike McMahan asked that the court "give us all guidance." He said, "The governance of the city has been under some cloud since August."
Ms. Mullis-Morgan and Mr. Folkner were the only witnesses since much of the case was stipulated.
There were about 15,500 names submitted and 9,718 were found to be valid. Of those, 4,279 had dates on them. State law would require 14,854 names and the city charter 8,957.