Jim Roberts, the attorney and organizer for the 4 Good Government group seeking to roll back property taxes and overhaul how Metro government functions, filed a preemptive complaint last week over the number of petition signatures his group needs to force the measure onto the ballot.

The legal filing came before the Davidson County Election Commission had even met to consider the referendum. The election commission meets on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

At issue is how many signatures Roberts needs to trigger a special referendum election that would allow voters to decide whether to amend the Metro charter.

The question of how many signatures are needed has been a source of legal debate. The Metro charter requires 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the previous Metro election to sign a petition in order for a referendum to be put on the ballot.

It was initially believed by many stakeholders that 4 Good Government needed about 33,000 signatures, which was 10 percent of the voters in the November election.

However, there is now agreement that the election that determines the number of signatures needed is actually the Aug. 6, 2020 election, when the Davidson County Trustee’s race, won by Erica Gilmore, was on the ballot.

The question is whether the number used to calculate the necessary signatures is 9,319 – 10 percent of the voters who actually voted in Gilmore’s race – or about 12,100 – 10 percent of the voters who participated in the Aug. 6 election.

Copy of mail piece sent by a group called 4GoodGovernment.

If it is the higher number, then 4 Good Government may not have the necessary signatures. Roberts alerted the Metro Clerk in a filing on March 25 his group collected 14,010. But, the election commission staff must verify that signatures match qualified registered voters’ information. If the commission determines that Roberts didn’t garner more than 12,100 signatures, then the measure could fail.

In his filing last week, Roberts asked for an emergency hearing to clarify the matter, and said he believes the election commission’s board will not verify enough signatures to put the matter on the ballot.

“On information and belief, the Election Commission intends to vote at the April 6,

2021 meeting to refuse to count or verify the registered voters’ signatures based on the false

information and erroneous advice provided to the Election Commission by Metro Legal,” Roberts said in his legal filing.

Last year, 4 Good Government, backed with funding by the anti-tax Koch family, sent out expensive mail signature cards to hundreds of thousands of Davidson County residents. While he successfully garnered enough signatures in the first go-round, that charter amendment proposal was legally flawed and thrown out by Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle.

That sent Roberts back to the drawing board with a second round of petition cards mailed to voters in February.

4 Good Government wants to reduce the property tax rate back to its 2019 levels before Metro Council increased the rate by 34 percent. And any future increases more than 3 percent would require voter approval.

The charter amendment proposal would also: 

  • Make it easier to remove Metro officials by reducing the number of signatures needed to force a recall election.
  • Abolish health insurance benefits for Metro Council members and other elected officials.
  • Preserve voter-approved charter amendments by changing the charter itself to say those amendments could only be repealed by way of future voter referendums.
  • Make it harder to give away Metro property by requiring 31 Metro Council votes to approve land conveyances instead of the current requirement of 21 votes.
  • Revert pro sports stadiums and the surrounding developments back to taxpayers in the event a team leaves town or fails to play in its venue for 24 straight months.

Even if Roberts succeeds in having the petition signatures verified so as to force the measure onto the ballot, his proposal is still subject to litigation over its legality. That means the anti-tax referendum is likely to be tied up in court in the coming weeks.

Chancellor Russell Perkins was initially assigned Roberts’ latest lawsuit, but recused himself. It’s unclear as of Tuesday which chancellor will hear the case.