The city is one step closer to altering its election cycle via a charter amendment. The charter amendment has passed both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly and now heads to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk for his signature, according to city officials.
Senate Bill 1631 and its companion, House Bill 1611, introduced in the General Assembly this legislative session by Tullahoma’s state representatives, State Sen. Janice Bowling and State Rep. Rush Bricken, moves the city’s municipal elections from an annual occurrence to a biennial one. It also extends the terms of the mayor and aldermen to four years rather than three, beginning with the terms of both Mayor Pro Tem Jimmy Blanks and Alderman Sernobia McGee, who would have run for reelection this year.
Blanks and McGee’s terms will continue for one more year, at which time the terms of Aldermen Daniel Berry and Rupa Blackwell will also expire.
Per the bill text, municipal elections will sync with the general election cycle, taking place on the Thursday after the first Monday in August rather than the first Thursday in the month. The newly elected mayor and aldermen will then be sworn in on the first Monday after the election results are certified, per the bill.
In order to get all the aldermen and mayor off the three-year election cycle, the mayoral and aldermanic terms that would have expired in August of 2023 will be extended for one year, until August 2024. The two aldermanic seats elected in 2019—which currently belong to Berry and Blackwell—will not be extended, as they are already scheduled to expire in a general election year.
The change will see three alderman seats come available every other year, with the mayor’s seat coming available with one set of three aldermen.
According to the bill, the three candidates who receive the highest number of votes in the August 2022 election will start the new four-year cycle. These three seats will then become available every four years beginning in August 2026. The candidate receiving the fourth-highest number of votes in that election will be elected to a two-year term, until the Thursday after the first Monday in August 2024. From then on, those elections will be held every four years, per the bill.
In accordance with state law, the charter amendment must be ratified by the city board in a two-thirds majority once it has been signed by the governor. Five of the seven board members must vote to ratify in order to pass the charter change.
Mayor Ray Knowis told The News he has been a proponent of changing the election cycle since prior to his aldermanic election in 2015, citing low turnout in odd-year elections.
“Turnout for off year elections is typically less than 15% of the registered voters,” he said. “Last year, in 2020, the turnout was over 25%.”
Knowis also said shifting the election cycle would save the city money—up to $30,000 in some instances.
He added he was “anxious” to see the governor sign the bill and get it back to the city for ratification.
Alderman Rupa Blackwell echoed the mayor’s financial reasons for supporting the change.
“It is the fiscally responsible thing to do,” she said.
However, Blackwell also had concerns about voter engagement with the new election cycle.
“By eliminating these off-year elections, I worry some citizens may not stay aware of local issues,” she said. “I encourage our citizens to remain engaged at our local level, even when elections are not happening, and I promise to continue to keep our community abreast of the city affairs through social media and my monthly coffees.”
Other aldermen, including Alderman Robin Dunn and McGee, said they were pleased to see this issue move forward.
Dunn told The News she hoped shifting the election cycle would keep the public engaged in local politics and the civic process while keeping citizens from experiencing “voter’s fatigue.”
“During my first meeting as Alderman, [then Alderman] Ray made the point then that this was something that should be addressed,” she said. “It is nice to see this finally come into effect.
Blanks said he attempted to raise the issue years ago, though the idea “received no traction” at that time. He also pointed out to The News that the city would still have off-year elections, due to the school board and city judge elections. That portion of the municipal elections will also need to make its way through the legislature, he said.
“It wasn’t addressed by the legislature this session,” he added.
McGee said she was looking forward to having the governor sign the bill and send it back to the board for final approval.
Aldermen Jenna Amacher and Daniel Berry did not respond to requests for comment.
According to state officials, the governor has 10 days, excluding Sundays, from transmission of the bill to sign it for it to become law. As the bill was sent to the governor’s desk April 20, his signature would be required by Saturday, May 1. Officials in the governor’s office said it may have been signed in the last couple days or could become law without his signature.