Guerrilla Law

Recall law would make officials heed voters' wishes

Putnam Pit Guerrilla Law columnist

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- "Throw the rascals out," or one of its more vulgar variants, was commonly heard around town recently after the city council hatched its voter-repudiated scheme to lease or sell Cookeville General Hospital.

That's not to say the scheme was good or bad -- no one knows how it would have worked out. But the question does not end with the hospital. That particular war cry is being chanted about other local officials.

The challenge of ridding government of unwanted, tainted or corrupt politicians continues to be a problem for voters who, feeling their faces licked by candidates, make ballot choices on the basis of tongue temperature and familiarity instead of competence or integrity.

In our last Guerrilla Law column we discussed the state's "Ouster Law," which provides an expensive and time-consuming process that only politicians likely to fall under its provisions could have dreamed up.

As we reported in the September Putnam Pit, the city received numerous calls about "recall" of city council members after the local government tried to ramrod the hospital deal down the public's throat. But city employees politely and correctly advised that "there ain't no such animal" -- at least not in Cookeville.

"Recall," where it exists, is a procedure allowing citizens to remove elected officials, either at any time during their term of office, or after a specified time, by vote of the people at an election called for that purpose.

Indeed, with few exceptions, there is no general law in Tennessee concerning recall of public officials, either state or local.


The principle underlying the recall of public officials has been defined as an effective, speedy remedy to remove an official who is not giving satisfaction to the public.

Although the process has been characterized as a "special, extraordinary and unusual proceeding" and as "a harsh remedy," its validity has consistently been upheld by the courts. Usually, voters must wait a specific period of time after the official's election.

Recall is initiated by the execution of a petition by a specified number or percentage of electors.The petition is then examined by a designated office, such as in the election registrar, and certified as being sufficient or insufficient under the law. If found to be a sufficient petition, it is then scheduled for a vote, by which it is decided whether or not to remove the official. If the voters vote to remove the officer, then the office is declared vacant and the vacancy filled as provided by law.

The only statute on recall in Tennessee relates to councilmen elected under a "modified city manager-council charter." (T.C.A. 6-30-101) Cookeville is not covered by this statute.

Under this law, at least-two-thirds of the voters who cast for that office must sign petitions, and in the recall election, two-thirds must vote to recall the councilman.

But municipalities can pass their own laws regarding recall. Algood, for example, has a provision for recall requiring 50 percent of the vote cast, and removal by majority vote.

Recall, therefore, can be made very difficult by requiring a larger number to remove.

In our next column, we'll look at how citizens can get a recall provision on the city law books.