Chancellor allows Forging Ahead to be part of election contest

Jan. 04, 2013 @ 10:09 PM

The group that supported last year’s successful liquor-by-the-drink referendum in Pigeon Forge can take part in next week’s election contest trial, but won’t be allowed to call witnesses or request new evidence for the case.

Chancellor Telford Forgety Jr. said Forging Ahead had waited until late in the 50-day process to file a motion to intervene in the contest of election filed by Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge (CCCPF) against the Sevier County Election Commission.

“We made the decision as quickly as we could,” Forging Ahead attorney John Owings said during a Friday hearing before Chancellor Forgety.

“Well, you should have made it earlier,” Forgety replied.

The chancellor’s decision means Forging Ahead will essentially be limited to asking additional questions of witnesses and making its own arguments during the process.

CCCPF is asking Forgety to toss the results of the November referendum, saying election officials allowed around 300 ineligible voters to cast ballots. With a 100-vote margin of victory, and no way to determine which way the ineligible voters cast their ballots, CCCPF maintains the results warrant a new election.

Forging Ahead actually filed the motion to intervene on Dec. 21, a month after CCCPF filed the contest of election. Forgety acknowledged that would ordinarily be a quick response. However, state law puts a contest of election on a fast track. They have to be heard in court within 50 days after they’re served on the defendants. In this case, the trial has to be heard by Jan. 11.

The contest of election names only the election commission as defendants. CCCPF is only claiming that election officials made errors, attorney Lewis Howard Jr. noted, and not that Forging Ahead tried to improperly influence the vote.

Forgety noted that both CCCPF and the election commission have worked diligently to finish deposing witnesses and gathering evidence so they could be ready for the trial. Owings said he didn’t anticipate any requests he might make would cause any delay if his side joined the complaint.

The chancellor said that, with the situation they’re facing, he couldn’t allow any delays.

“There just, at this point, is ... not time to add new witnesses and engage in new discovery,” he said.

Howard opposed the decision allowing Forging Ahead to intervene, saying the allegations don’t involve Forging Ahead or its members and that the election commission already represents the interests of the voters. “The issue is whether this referendum should be voided,” he said.

Owings argued Forging Ahead represents the 1,232 people who cast votes in favor of the sale of liquor by the drink, as well as its own interest as a group that organized, raised and spent money to get the referendum approved.

“We believe the election commission’s position is much more neutral than it ought to be,” he said.

Dennis Francis, attorney for the Election Commission, said his clients neither opposed not supported the request to intervene.

However, Francis has filed a motion to dismiss CCCPF based on the argument the group doesn’t have the proper standing to file a contest of election, and said he would include Forging Ahead in that motion because the same issues apply to both groups. In the original motion, Francis said CCCPF didn’t stipulate what actions it took to have standing to file a contest of election.

Outside court, Forging Ahead chairman Ken Maples said he was happy to see the group join the lawsuit.

“Forging Ahead and those voters that voted in favor or this deserve to have a voice in this process,” he said.

If Forgety rules there should be a new election, he said, the decision would also give them a chance to take part in the conversation on how the new election should be handled, he said.

However, he said he believes there are other options available if the judge finds there were discrepancies.

Also speaking outside court, Francis said the election commission couldn’t have voided the election even if it had decided on its own there were enough errors to do so. That has to be decided in court, he said, and the election commission has a responsibility to tell the court what efforts it took to see that the election was properly overseen.

Howard left without commenting further on the case.