JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — The future of a Tennessee Hills Distillery-led bid to impose term limits on Jonesborough’s elected officials could depend on whether local laws and ordinances trump state statutes in certain situations.

A lawyer for Tennessee Hills (THD) says a referendum petition is valid and should be approved Tuesday by the Washington County Election Commission (WCEC) so Jonesborough voters can decide whether to impose term limits on elected officials.

A “Petition for the Future of Jonesborough — No To Career Politicians!” was submitted to the WCEC in late July.

The petition with 187 signatures appears to lack a couple of state-mandated elements — the address of each signee and a date of signature — that appear to be clearly required under Tennessee Code 2-5-151, “petitions for recall, referendum or initiative.”

“Our discussion will basically be, does the petition meet the state law Tennessee Code 2-5-151,” WCEC Chairman Gary McAllister told News Channel 11 about the board’s Tuesday morning meeting. “If it meets that then we will work with Nashville to work to see when we can get it on the ballot.”

2-5-151 requires petitions to include:

  • “The full text of the question attached to each petition;”
  • “The genuine signature and address of registered voters…”
  • “The printed name of each signatory; and”
  • “The date of signature.”

In addition to excluding the date of signature and addresses of the signers, the petition does not include a full text of a question. Such a question might read, “Should the Town of Jonesborough enact term limits of four consecutive terms for mayor and two consecutive terms for aldermen?”

But Clark Jordan told News Channel 11 Friday those requirements may not matter. Jordan, chief legal officer for THD parent company Rugged American Spirits, cited “a concept called self-rule” that operates in Tennessee.

Jordan said that concept gives local jurisdictions “certain controls over themselves and we hope that is the way the Washington County Election Commission views this as well.”

If term limits made the ballot as a referendum and then passed, citizens would still be eligible to run for more than the limited number of terms as long as they sat out at least one cycle.

If the WCEC’s five commissioners approve the petition, Jonesborough’s bylaws say it would go on the ballot at the next regularly scheduled municipal election, which falls in August 2024.

What started all this?

The document is the result of a drive by leaders at THD. They announced in early July they would seek the change in response to what they claimed was the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) “moving the goalposts” about rules surrounding beer sales at their distillery location.

“The purpose of term limits is to ensure that you have a great diversity of thought happening within the town, perhaps new people that have not run for office before have an opportunity to serve their town and we believe that those are all very important aspects of democracy,” Jordan said.

He said the “Petition for the Future of Jonesborough” was crafted to align with a section in the town’s code that allows for term limits.

“We believe that what we did is consistent with the town bylaws of Jonesborough,” he said.

Jordan downplayed THD’s role in the petition, which includes a statement that “leaders need to support businesses that bring jobs rather than strangling them.”

“It is really several citizens of Jonesborough that are asking that the additional citizens of Jonesborough take up the question of whether there should be term limits for the mayor and aldermen,” he said.

While acknowledging what he called “a bit of divergence between what the bylaw of Jonesborough says and what a state statute says,” Jordan said he thinks Jonesborough’s bylaws should be the primary legal consideration.

“We think the bylaw of Jonesborough controls, but we’ll see what the election commission thinks and make a decision at that point,” he said.

McAllister said the WCEC would be happy to work with Jordan and the petitioners if it determines the current submission doesn’t pass muster.

“We can go back again and do this (if it’s rejected),” McAllister said. “It’ll be up to them.”

He said the election commission isn’t in the business of determining whether term limits are allowed. The problem would come, he said, if the WCEC allowed a petition that wasn’t properly constructed to be the basis for a referendum. A voter challenge could potentially overturn the results in that case.

“They could come back and say, ‘election commission, it did not meet this code,'” McAllister said. “And they could take it to court and they would say ‘yes,’ so our job is to make sure it meets the code. That’s all we’re doing on Tuesday.”