Anti-tax charter amendment set for July 27 election, but lawsuit is likely

By: - May 10, 2021 8:44 pm
Attorney James Blumstein provides legal advice to the Davidson County Election Commission at its meeting on Monday, May 10 in Nashville. (Photo by John Partipilo.)

Attorney James Blumstein provides legal advice to the Davidson County Election Commission at its meeting on Monday, May 10 in Nashville. (Photo by John Partipilo.)

The Republican-led Davidson County Election Commission voted along party lines Monday to put a charter amendment proposal on the ballot that would completely overhaul how Metro functions, making it easier to recall elected officials and curb the city’s ability to raise property taxes.

Should Monday’s decision survive likely legal challenges, Davidson County voters will have a chance to cast their ballots for or against the measure on July 27.

The vote was 3-2 with the three Republican-nominated commissioners in favor and the two Democrat-nominated commissioners in opposition.

It took five meetings for the election commission to take action, but the matter is hardly settled. A lawsuit by Metro seeking to overturn the election commission’s decision and block the referendum is certain.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper blasted the anti-tax proposal by the opaquely funded group 4 Good Government in prepared remarks following the commission’s vote. Cooper said that if the referendum would “lead to a self-inflicted crisis” and “make local government ineffective.”

“This charter amendment is an unconstitutional attempt to sabotage our city using a California-style referendum,” Cooper said. “That’s just not how we govern in Tennessee.

“Metro’s property tax rate is 23.5 percent lower than our 25-year average rate. We have the third lowest property tax rate in Metro history. And we have the lowest tax rate of any major city in Tennessee, a famously low-tax state. Nashville is solving big problems and making big investments in our future. The proposed amendment jeopardizes that important work. It threatens our ability to invest in teacher pay, to hire more first responders, and to build more affordable housing.”

The 4 Good Government proposal is being pushed by Nashville attorney Jim Roberts, who has been frequently cited by the Board of Professional Responsibility for unethical behavior.

The group tried to amend the charter last year, but a Nashville judge ruled that proposal was unconstitutional and the referendum never went forward.

That sent Roberts back to the drawing board, recrafting the amendment proposal to reset the property tax rate to its level prior to last year’s tax hike.

Any future increase of more than 2 percent would require voter approval. The proposal would also make the following changes to the charter:

*Make it easier to remove Metro officials by reducing the number of signatures needed to force a recall election. Also, the elected official who is the subject of the recall would be barred from running in the recall election except as a write-in candidate.

*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.

Davidson County Election Commission board member Tricia Herzfeld makes a point during debate around a Metro charter amendment proposal during the commission’s meeting on Monday, May 10. Photo by John Partipilo.

Among the legal issues raised by opponents of the charter amendment proposal was that petitions signed by more than 12,100 registered voters included two dates for the referendum. The charter requires organizers to prescribe a date, but the election commission didn’t have enough time to put the measure on the ballot for either of the two dates picked by 4 Good Government.

The election commission’s vote came after receiving legal advice from its attorneys, hired specifically to offer guidance on the subject of this charter amendment proposal. Attorneys James Blumstein and Austin McMullen advised the commission that the proposal meets the technical and substantive legal requirements to be placed on the ballot. Blumstein brushed aside the question of the two dates, because he said the matter was moot since the commission had already certified the signatures.

Anticipating the election commission would put the measure on the ballot, the Metro Council voted in April to submit a separate charter amendment proposal, which would effectively block the 4 Good Government’s amendment.

The election commission said it didn’t receive a certified copy of the council legislation, which was unanimously approved and signed into law by Cooper in April, until May 7. The election commission’s three Republican members said they needed more time to study the council charter amendment proposal and asked Blumstein and McMullen to examine the matter. The commission will meet again on Thursday.

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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.