DATE: December 13, 2001
FROM: Melissa A. Ashburn, Legal Consultant
RE: Alteration of Election Dates
It is my understanding that your City desires to change election dates so that elections may be held on the same days as county elections, thereby saving the City the expense of holding elections independently. Your City Manager proposes that an ordinance be prepared to change the terms of office of commissioners elected in 2003 to three (3) year terms, then to begin holding elections in sync with the county in 2006, at which time the terms would change back to four (4) years. It is my opinion that the election cycle may be changed, but not in the manner proposed by the City Manager.
The general law manager-commission charter adopted by your City provides unequivocally that the terms of mayor and commissioners shall be four (4) years. Tennessee Code Annotated ' 6-20-102(c)(2)(C) states “all terms of office for members of the board of commissioners shall be four (4) years.” The section of the charter addressing terms of commissioners directly, ' 6-20-101, states that the terms of all commissioners “shall be for four (4) years, or until their successors are elected and qualified.” A similar provision is contained in the Tennessee Constitution, Article VII, Sec. 5: “Every officer shall hold his office until his successor is elected or appointed and qualified.” That constitutional provision applies to every public office in the state, and has been expressly adopted by the legislature for application to municipalities operating under a city manager-commission charter. However, it is a “holdover” provision designed to avoid vacancies in office, which is only applied to lengthen the term of office as opposed to shortening the term.
When the language employed in Tennessee Code Annotated ' 6-20-101 is read in conjunction with the entire chapter addressing general law cities, the statute indicates that the term of commissioners can be extended, but not shortened, to effect a change in election dates. The many reported Court opinions on the issue reveal that this is the interpretation adopted by the judiciary. The Supreme Court states:
It is a general rule of law, well recognized in our State, that the holder of a public office, duly elected, qualified and inducted for a fixed term acquires certain property rights of which he may not be arbitrarily deprived. LaFever v. Ware, 365 S.W.2d 44(Tenn. 1963), citing Rhea County v. White, 43 S.W.2d 375 (Tenn. 1931).
As all of the case law on this issue deals with incumbents whose terms have been shortened, I have consulted with Senior Legal Consultant Sid Hemsley to determine if he believes the rule would still apply if no incumbent’s term would be shortened. Sid feels strongly that the rule applies no matter what the situation, based on the statutory language.
It is therefore our combined opinion that your City may not shorten the terms of commissioners elected in 2003 in order to change the next election date. Based on our research, the only manner in which election dates may be changed in general law charter cities is to extend the terms of the commissioners, beyond four years, until the next county election date.
I realize this is not the solution your City was looking for, but I hope this information is helpful. Please let me know if you need anything further.