Six minutes before Monday’s 4:30 p.m. deadline, Tennessee State Fair supporters walked up the stairs inside the Metro Courthouse and delivered what they say is “more than enough” petition signatures to add a referendum to August’s election in hopes of preserving the 117-acre fairgrounds.
For three weeks, fairgrounds supporters have counted petitions from the mailbox, knocked on doors and used social media to try to collect the more than 15,700 signatures of registered Davidson County voters required to hold the referendum. On Monday, they took their collections to the Metro clerk’s office.
“We have more than enough,” Save My Fairgrounds’ Neil Chaffin told a room full of reporters. “I can’t give you an exact account, but I think we have several thousand more than what we need.
“It brings a little bit more suspense and a little thrill to the action,” he said of the last-minute submission.
The signatures, contained in several clear boxes, are now expected to make their way to the Davidson County Election Commission, which must count them and certify they’ve come from registered voters in the county.
County Elections Administrator Albert Tieche said he believes the process will take at least 10 days.
“It’s just a verification procedure — the same we do for candidate petitions,” Tieche said. “It’s just a much larger number.”
Absent when preservationists turned in petitions was Metro Councilman Jamie Hollin, who had taken the lead on the referendum efforts. Contacted by The City Paper, Hollin echoed confidence that the group collected enough signatures.
“A lot of people put in a lot of hard work to enable the voice of the people to be heard,” Hollin said. “This goes a long way towards making that happen.”
Chaffin — who formerly served on the Board of Fairgrounds and whose son, Chad Chaffin, has been hired to hold racing events at the fairgrounds speedway — said the majority of his group’s signatures came via mail.
“People signed them, put a stamp on them and sent them back,” Chaffin said. “Then we collected tons door-to-door and at parking lots, and places like that.
“We have a tradition out there — the fairgrounds — and we want to keep it,” he added.
Earlier on Monday, a group called Neighbors For Progress, which has aligned with Mayor Karl Dean’s efforts to redevelop the fairgrounds, announced it has tapped veteran attorney George Barrett to monitor the fairgrounds petition effort. The announcement came from Barrett’s law office.
“Given the recent history of this particular issue, we believe it is incumbent on the Davidson County Election Commission to carefully consider and verify each and every signature on any petition filed today,” Barrett said in a statement.
When asked for a response to Neighbors for Progress’ announcement, Hollin took aim at Barrett’s intentions.
“It’s my understanding that Mr. Barrett is taking that case pro bono,” Hollin said. “It would not surprise me if that was done as a favor to the [the mayor’s] administration.”
Barrett has contributed $1,000 to Dean’s re-election efforts.
Contacted by The City Paper, Barrett chuckled at Hollin’s suggestion.
“I’m certainly not taking it as a favor to the administration,” Barrett said. “I don’t have any problem with people petitioning. I just want to make sure that the petitions are proper and that people who have signed them have the ability to sign them to make them valid.”
Election Day is Aug. 4. If put on the ballot, a referendum on the fairgrounds figures to play a major role in the upcoming campaign season, perhaps giving a boost to Metro Councilman Michael Craddock, Dean’s lone challenger for mayor. Craddock has strongly opposed Dean’s handling of the fairgrounds.
Fairgrounds supporters say they’re ready for any opposition.
“I think there will be a battle to get the most votes out,” Chaffin said.