CUMBERLAND COUNTY – Voters in Crossville will see an election item never before balloted in Cumberland County until this year. A recall for two sitting council members – Danny Wyatt and Pam Harris – come November.
The call to action was spurred by a citizens group following recent moves to ouster City Manager David Rutherford, and what some say are behind-the-scenes efforts to kill the Horizon Initiative, a community- wide effort to bolster economic development, tourism and reduce drug use and crime.
But how did we get here, exactly?
In 2013, the city of Crossville was looking to make some routine “housecleaning” updates to the city charter and appointed a charter commission to review the existing charter, changes to state law, and make recommendations for bringing the charter up to date.
Routine changes to the city’s charter are not required to be put before the voters for approval, but the council can decide to put certain changes before the voters in referendum. As the changes were being readied for submission to the Tennessee General Assembly because Crossville operates under a special charter that requires approval by the state legislature, provisions for a term limit referendum were proposed by councilman Pete Souza, something he said his supporters wanted.
In addition, in January 2014,Souza had proposed a non-binding “confidence vote” be put on the ballot for all the council members. Souza said at the time that he would resign if at least 50 percent of the voters did not vote confidence in him.
Since there is no provision in state law for such a confidence vote to be placed on the ballot, city officials looked at options, coming up with some model charter recall language. Souza proposed that a recall provision be added to the charter so that council members could be removed from office. The addition of a recall referendum proposal to the charter changes was approved in February 2014 with four out of five city council members at the time voting in favor.
Both the charter changes of adding a two-term limit for council members to the charter and the addition of the recall provision were approved by a majority of Crossville voters in the November 2014 election.
The term limit allows all council members elected starting with the upcoming November 2016 ballot to serve only two consecutive terms on council. They could also serve two additional terms as mayor. A candidate would have to sit out two years before running again and could then serve two more consecutive terms after that.
There’s high hurdles involved in the recall. Thirty-three percent of registered voters must signs the recall petition just to get the matter on a ballot. That number currently totals 2,225 based on the number of registered city voters, both residents and property owners. In the last city election only about 2,300 votes were cast.
Once the election commission certifies enough signatures have been gathered and the recall question can be placed on the ballot, the council member in question is notified and has 10 days in which to resign. If they do so, the matter will not go to vote. It the council member decides not to resign, the question is placed on the ballot and a 66 percent yes vote is required to remove the official from office.
Effort to ‘take back city hall’
Crossville’s November ballot already includes two council seats up for vote. The terms of Souza and Jesse Kerley are up for election. Based on information given to the election commission by recall proponent Howard Burnette – who is working on behalf of a group called Crossville Citizens for Good Government – his goal is to have the necessary signatures on petitions to get the recall of both council members Wyatt and Harris on the November ballot as well.
Burnette said Crossville voters have a chance to “take back city hall.” He’s pushing for Wyatt and Harris’s replacement based on their efforts to suspend and replace Rutherford, who had served as city manager since 2013 but was removed from office in April, and because they “have failed to support…the Horizon Initiative… thus not acting in the best interest of the citizens which (they) swore an oath to represent.” Additionally, they have eliminated the monthly council workshops, which limits public access, he said. They’ve also moved to hear public comment after a council vote – not before.
“It is serious business when public servants break their oaths of office,” Burnette said. “There is a pattern of abuse by these two council members. They disregard what is in the best interest of ‘we the people.’”
Harris and Wyatt were given an opportunity to respond to Burnette’s allegations. Harris said she’s never personally met Burnette and says he’s never contacted her about any of his concerns. She said he and a small, select group “have been grossly misinformed.”
“You can be certain that this group does not represent all 11,000-plus citizens of the City of Crossville,” she told the UCBJ in an email. “But rather than waste everyone’s time trying to defend myself against these inaccurate allegations, I am going to have faith that the truth will be revealed and justice will prevail. Rest assured that I will continue to do my very best to fairly represent all the citizens of Crossville and not just this select group.”
Wyatt declined to comment for this story.
Per the charter, if a council member leaves office, he/she shall be replaced within 60 days by a vote of the remaining council members. That replacement would serve until the next city or county general election. If council had a tie vote that remains unbroken for 60 days, then the mayor will appoint a person to fill the vacancy.
Any council member removed from office by a recall election must wait two years before being eligible to again hold a council seat.