Secretly-funded efforts target mayor, Nashville tax policy

Nashville Mayor John Cooper at a recent press conference. (Photo: Metro Nashville News)
Nashville Mayor John Cooper at a recent press conference. (Photo: Metro Nashville News)

Nashville voters are being targeted by two apparently linked petition drive efforts, one to recall Nashville Mayor John Cooper and the 31 Metro Council members who voted in favor of the property tax increase last month, and another to give voters unprecedented powers to approve such tax increases and other oversight of city finances.

The petition drives are opaque and it’s unclear who’s financing them.

Voters across Davidson County received a petition drive seeking signatures to back the referendum effort in their mailboxes on Thursday. Then, Thursday evening thousands of voters received a robocall backing the recall effort

The leader of the referendum effort is attorney Jim Roberts, who is the lawyer behind the lawsuit opposing the fairgrounds soccer stadium and mixed use development project.

Jim Roberts (Photo: Facebook)
Jim Roberts (Photo: Facebook)

Roberts said the referendum effort is “grassroots” and has the support of political orgnizers Michelle Forman and Kimberly Edwards, who he described as the leaders of the recall effort. Roberts said he supports, but isn’t behind the recall drive. He said he didn’t want to disclose who is financing the push for the voter referendum.

There’s no business entity filing with the Secretary of State matching the Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act effort, which is led by a group called 4 Good Government. It’s clear there is significant money behind that cause since Roberts said 45,000 petitions were mailed to Nashville voters this week and another 45,000 will go out next week.

Davidson County voters received a petition in their mailboxes this week asking for signatures to support a referendum that would overhaul how Metro raises property taxes, deals with excess property and issues bonds.

It’s unclear who is behind financing the initiative, which is dubbed the Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act, but Nashville attorney Jim Roberts is listed as the leader on the group’s website. Roberts is the attorney representing a pro-fairgrounds group that has fought the soccer stadium project in court.

“The Metro Council did us a favor and the mayor did us a favor by passing such a large tax increase that is clearly not popular,” Roberts said

A Cooper spokesman defended the property tax increase, which was 34 percent, as a necessary move for a city that was already troubled financially before the pandemic. The referendum seeks to undo that increase and give voters the power to approve any property tax increase over 2 percent.

“The crisis budget and large property tax increase passed by Metro Council maintains essential services and will do exactly what the subtitle of their website says: ‘Bring financial stability back to Nashville,’” spokesman Chris Song said. “The large tax increase is something Mayor Cooper would not have considered were we not facing Nashville’s greatest financial challenge. Metro entered 2020 woefully ill-prepared for a downturn, much less the rapid recession and unemployment brought on by the pandemic.

“The FY2021 budget, built on compromise and full of tough choices, will get us through this time of historic challenge and provide stable financial footing for our city’s future.”

The number of signatures needed is based on the previous county-wide election, which Roberts said will be the August primary. He estimated that the effort will need about 4,500 signatures total.

Robocall pushes recall

In addition to the referendum, a robocall encouraged voters to support an effort to recall Cooper and council members who backed the tax increase. The robocall referred voters to visit www.notax4nash.com. That website doesn’t disclose who is backing the effort. According to the robocall, advocates planned to be at early voting sites to gather signatures in support.

The proposed voter referendum is for Dec. 5.

In addition to the property tax measure, the referendum would block Metro from giving away parks, greenways or public lands valued at $5 million or more without approval of 31 votes on council – an extremely high bar to clear.

Any bond issuance over $15 million for a specific project would require a voter referendum, excluding projects for schools, libraries, healthcare buildings, police and fire departments.

The proposed referendum also takes aim at the city’s pro sports teams, proposing that if the Titans, Predators, Nashville SC or Sounds “leaves Nashville” or ceases playing games for more than 24 months, all facilities would and related commercial development would “revert to the people.”

Finally, the petition says any group receiving $250,000 or more in public funds is subject to the state’s open records laws.

The proposed date for the referendum to vote on the Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act is Dec. 5. The mail-in petitions have a return post office box with a Nashville zip code.

More information is available at www.nashvilletaxpayerprotectionact.com

In addition to the fairgrounds lawsuit, Roberts backed the 2011 effort to preserve the fairgrounds. He was also the legal counsel to the 2009 English-Only referendum. That effort to make English the city’s official language and block most government communications from using any language other than English took two petition drives before garnering enough signatures to make the ballot, and then was resoundingly defeated by voters.

Roberts has been in trouble with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which oversees the ethical conduct of lawyers. He was censured in 2020, 2018 and 2015. His license was suspended and then reinstated six months later in 2016.

In 2011, a BPR panel found Roberts engaged in deceitful conduct and ordered his license suspended for six months.