Friday, April 18, 2014 · 11:39 a.m.
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A Chattanooga ordinance that would extend health benefits to city employees’ domestic partners is on hold after a successful petition drive by a conservative political action committee this week.

Mark West showed council members a stack of signed petitions opposing the city's recent domestic partnership ordinance. (Photo: Staff)

Mark West, president of Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency, placed a large stack of petitions on a podium Tuesday evening and told council members they have a choice. They can repeal the ordinance they passed last month, or the issue will go before voters on a ballot next year.

"The ordinance has been suspended as of today," he said.

"Members of the council, I respectfully urge you to reconsider your original vote and repeal the domestic partner ordinance," he said.

A repeal would acknowledge the valid moral, fiscal and fairness concerns expressed by those who signed the petition, he said.

The city attorney’s office confirmed that the ordinance is temporarily stayed.

The PAC began gathering signatures the day after the measure passed on final reading. The group needed about 4,500 petitions signed by registered city voters. More than 7,000 petitions were verified this week, said Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, election administrator.

Hamilton County Election Commissioners will need to meet sometime in the next two weeks to certify the signatures and set the referendum for the August 2014 election, Mullis-Morgan said. Then, the commission will notify the city attorney, who could put the matter before the City Council again.

Council members have not said whether they would consider a repeal. Of the five members who voted in favor of the ordinance, none has indicated that he or she would vote differently.

Chris Brooks is a progressive activist who co-founded Chattanooga Organized for Action. The nonprofit organization worked on a lobbying effort to persuade council members to vote in favor of the original ordinance, he said.

"I know that decades from now we will look back, and those who signed these petitions will stand in silence, out of shame and embarrassment, for what they’ve done to stand in the way of justice today," he told council members Tuesday.

Organizers gathered signatures through various means. They went door to door. They stood outside shopping centers over the Thanksgiving holiday. At least three churches assisted in the effort. Several volunteers worked at the PAC’s headquarters in Brainerd to match signed petitions against a city voter database. The group purchased billboards and ad space on local websites to get its message out. And it used its Facebook page to coordinate its efforts.

But some volunteers also encountered animosity and harassment, according to accounts related by council members.

Councilman Larry Grohn, who voted against the ordinance, said someone threw a soda can at his wife while she was collecting signatures on Gunbarrel Road.

"We may disagree on issues, but that is no reason to be spouting any sort of remarks that would inflame this very contentious issue," he said.

"I’ve heard some reports of citizens trying to collect signatures who were treated very badly, very negatively," said Councilman Jerry Mitchell, who voted in favor of the original ordinance. There’s "no excuse for the way people are behaving toward people who are trying to express their beliefs in a democracy."

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