Metro and business coalition file lawsuits to stop anti-tax referendum

By: - May 11, 2021 3:45 pm

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.

Metro government and a coalition of Nashville businesses filed separate lawsuits on Tuesday seeking to stop a referendum election that proposes sweeping changes to the Metro charter.

Metro’s lawsuit claims that 4 Good Government, the anti-tax citizen group led by attorney Jim Roberts, failed to meet the charter requirement that any charter amendment proposals prescribe a date for the referendum.

Roberts turned in petitions, which were mailed to Davidson County voters, prescribing two possible dates – May 28 or June 14 – for the referendum. But, Roberts also turned in petitions printed off the 4 Good Government website signed by 550 voters identifying June 14 as the election date.

Subtracting the 550 printed petitions would take 4 Good Government below the threshold to force the election since the group had a margin of just more than 200 signatures.

Metro also argues in its lawsuit that the provision to rollback the 2020 property tax increase is unconstitutional. That charter amendment proposal would reset the tax rate to its pre-increase level and require a voter referendum on any increase over 3 percent.

But, Metro argues in its lawsuit that the state constitution gives the Metro Council rate-setting authority and that the city would be in violation of its commitment to bond holders if the amendment was approved.

4 Good Government’s charter amendment proposal would also:

*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*Preserve voter-approved charter amendments by changing the charter itself to say those amendments could only be repealed by way of future voter referendums.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.

Metro claims in its lawsuit, which was assigned to Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal, that each of these provisions is either too vague to definitively apply, should voters approve them, or facially unconstitutional.

The 4 Good Government campaign is broadly opposed by the Nashville business community. The Nashville Business Coalition, represented by attorney Jamie Hollin, filed a separate lawsuit arguing that the referendum should be thrown out. The business coalition lawsuit repeats some of the same arguments made in the Metro lawsuit, but also alleges the election commission did not properly follow the law in setting the matter for a special election on July 27.

The business coalition is seeking a writ of certiorari appealing the election commission’s 3-2 vote along party lines as “illegal, arbitrary or fraudulent.”

“Although the Nashville Business Coalition opposed the tax increase before its passage, we understand that the true intent of the referendum effort is to cause chaos and sow confusion, fundamentally changing the way our local government functions, and undermining our institutions,” the Nashville Business Coalition said in a statement sent by its executive director Joseph Woodson. “Meanwhile, a repeal of the tax increase would undo the financial progress Nashville has made and risk the livelihood of teachers, fire fighters, police officers, and all the essential workers that devote their professional lives to making Nashville a great city.

“The petition would also terminate existing contracts our members have with the city. The petitions would further change the recall process of locally elected officials. This provision would make it so that 10 percent of a voting population could remove an elected official and immediately ban them from pursuing re-election. This alone could also seriously damage the very foundation of our great city’s leadership.”

The business coalition lawsuit was assigned to Chancellor Russell Perkins. Both Perkins and Moskal have recused themselves from earlier litigation over charter amendment proposals by 4 Good Government, leaving open the distinct possibility the suits will be reassigned to Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle or Chancellor Anne Martin.

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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.