JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Washington County’s election commission rejected a referendum petition Tuesday that would have put term limits for Jonesborough elected officials on the next regular town ballot.
Commissioners rejected the 187-signature document — which was written and signed in the wake of a tiff between Tennessee Hills Distillery (THD) and the town — in a 4-0 vote after discussing the requirements for referendum petitions contained in Tennessee state law. The petition calls for a referendum over whether to limit aldermen to two consecutive four-year terms and the mayor to four consecutive two-year terms.
Commissioners determined the petition fell short in several areas.
“I have talked to our legal counsel in Nashville, Ms. Beth Robertson,” Commission Chairman Gary McAllister said, referring to Tennessee’s Assistant Coordinator of Elections Beth Henry-Robertson. Tennessee Code Annotated 2-5-151 governs petitions for referenda, recalls and initiatives.
“One of the things she brought out to me on the petition, it was missing address, date, question (to be voted on),” McAllister said. “Voters must sign beneath the question.”
Election Administrator Dana Jones, meanwhile, told commissioners she didn’t even think the state would allow a referendum based on the current petition.
“In my opinion and in (Robertson’s) opinion … this petition will not stand up in court, so I think we do a disservice to the people of Washington County if we accept this petition,” Jones said.
That doesn’t necessarily spell the end for an effort launched by a Jonesborough business, Tennessee Hills Distillery (THD) to mount the petition drive. Election commissioners extended an olive branch to THD’s lawyer, Clark Jordan, saying Jones and her office could work with him to ensure any future effort meets all requirements.
The offer came after the vote and after a public comment period during which Jordan and two Jonesborough residents spoke. Jordan, as he did to News Channel 11 Friday, claimed that Jonesborough’s charter and its references to term limits took precedence over TCA 2-5-151, which lays out requirements for referendum petitions.
The state legislature approved a change to Jonesborough’s charter in 2012 through what’s called a private act, which enabled term limits if the board of mayor and aldermen voted to enact them or if citizens petitioned and a referendum passed.
“I’ve seen reports in the press in view of what law controls,” Jordan said, adding later, “in my view, that’s the controlling law — the private act,” Jordan said.
THD announced and launched the petition drive, with founder Stephen Callahan referencing the town “nefariously and capriciously moved the goalposts on us” as the business sought an on-premise beer permit, but Jordan also said the petition drive “isn’t about Tennessee Hills.
“People want to make it about Tennessee Hills. At this point, there’s a couple hundred different citizens of the town of Jonesborough who’ve signed petitions asking what they’re allowed to ask for, which is term limits.”
Two Jonesborough residents who spoke took a very different view.
One of them, Linda Harris said she didn’t believe in changing laws or policies in Jonesborough just because someone, or a business, isn’t happy.
“We are not broken,” Harris said. “We do not need fixing. We cannot be ruled by one corporation or one individual that didn’t get their way. We respect our merchants. They respect our town and its rules as does the rest of the business community, and we as citizens respect the will of the most.”
What comes next?
The will of the most is still something that can be placed on a referendum before August 2024’s next regular Jonesborough election. Jordan said his next step would be to speak to Beth Henry-Robertson and learn whether she was aware of the private act. He said he hoped she would have a different opinion based on that act.
“If their opinion doesn’t change, we’ll have to evaluate and see what we do at that point,” Jordan said.
Jordan hinted that one way or the other, he believed a referendum should make it to the ballot. The 187 signatures are more than the required minimum of 10% who voted in the last mayoral election.
“Right now, you’ve got a couple hundred people who are the citizens of Jonesborough who have said they’d like to see a referendum on term limits, and I think that’s what’s important at this point.”
Asked why the petition leaders didn’t simply include all the required elements under TCA 2-5-151, Jordan said they went with the verbatim requirements contained in the private act. He called the address and date requirements “a very minor technicality.”
“The date and addresses really don’t matter for this kind of a petition,” Jordan said. “The election commission checks names against registered voters no matter what address they write down and the private act doesn’t require it.”
The petition remains active for another 15 days, and if Henry-Robertson sees things Jordan’s way, the current petition could still be the basis for a referendum.
News Channel 11 has reached out to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office asking for Henry-Robertson’s opinion on whether the private act would make the current petition valid.