Friday, August 29, 2008

Lawsuit: Metro blocks English-only vote unfairly

Group says attorneys twist the law By MICHAEL CASS • Staff Writer • August 29, 2008 A group that hopes to make English the official language of Nashville filed suit against the city Thursday in an effort to put the issue up for a vote this fall. Nashville English First sponsor and Metro Councilman Eric Crafton acted two days after the Davidson County Election Commission refused to put the referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, despite the pro-English group's collection of enough county voters' signatures to do so. City attorneys have said the Nov. 4 election will fall three days short of a two-year gap required between petition-driven referendums on proposals to change the Metro Charter. The last such referendum was held Nov. 7, 2006. But Jim Roberts, an attorney for Nashville English First and Crafton, said Metro attorneys read the law in a way that was rigged to keep voters from deciding the issue. "They don't want the voters of Davidson County to vote on this referendum," Roberts told reporters after filing the lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court. "The only way they could prevent that was to stop it before it started." Metro's deputy law director, Mike Safley, declined to comment on the complaint. The proposed charter amendment would require that all Metro meetings, communications and publications be conducted or published in English, with no exceptions for health or safety. Critics have acknowledged that they'll do what's necessary to keep the measure from becoming law, including challenging supporters' ability to put it up for a countywide vote. The Metro Charter says charter amendments cannot "be submitted by petition more often than once in each two years." Metro Law Director Sue Cain wrote in a legal opinion Monday that "it has not been two years since the last petition to amend the Charter was submitted to the people." The Nashville English First lawsuit says the two-year gap refers to the dates when petitions were submitted to the Metro Clerk's office. Organizers of the 2006 ballot initiative submitted their petition on Aug. 8 of that year. Nashville English First says it submitted its petition, with more than 12,500 signatures, on Aug. 15, though news accounts show the date was actually Aug. 14. "Having otherwise qualified their initiative petition, Plaintiffs have been injured both financially and substantively due solely to the Cain letter and the actions of the Commission in accepting and complying with the Cain letter," according to the lawsuit. The complaint asks that the court order the election commission to certify the signatures and hold the referendum on Nov. 4 or in "a special election three days after Nov. 4." The lawsuit also says Metro allowed two charter amendment referendums within a two-year period in the 1990s and is ignoring a clear precedent. Referendums were held Nov. 5, 1996, and Nov. 3, 1998. But every charter amendment proposal in 1996 was submitted by the Metro Council, not by voter petition, Elections Administrator Ray Barrett confirmed. The charter says the council can't put charter referendums on the ballot more than twice in a four-year term, but it makes no reference to the time between those two submissions.

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