Legal brawl begins over anti-tax ballot measure

Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: Nashville.gov)
Historic Nashville Courthouse and Public Square. (Photo: Nashville.gov)

The legal brawl between Metro and the Republican-led Davidson County Election Commission began with a hearing on Monday in Chancellor Russell Perkins’ court.

It was the opening foray of a complicated, multi-layer legal dispute about whether a referendum currently scheduled for July 27 can go forward.

The referendum, brought by the conservative and secretly funded 4 Good Government, would completely alter the way Metro operates, including how it sets the property tax rate.

The legal challenges can generically be broken down into two categories: did 4 Good Government follow the relevant referendum laws in collecting signatures? And are the actual proposals legal under state and Metro law?

Metro lawyers argue the law wasn’t followed properly in collecting the signatures, or in the election commission’s long process of putting the measure on the ballot.

The proposed charter amendments are sweeping, affecting everything from taxes to the benefits provided to elected officials and the Sports Authority’s leases at Nashville’s professional sports venues.

Led by attorney Allison Bussell, Metro laid out a litany of reasons why the referendum is illegal and should be tossed. Bussell argued that 4 Good Government defied the city charter when it listed two possible dates for when the referendum could be held. The charter mandates that petitioners select a single date.

The question of the two dates is even more confusing since the date selected by the election commission’s three Republican-nominated commissioners to hold the referendum is not one of the two dates sought by 4 Good Government. 

Bussell also argued that 4 Good Government illegally used two different petitions to gather signatures, and if the two petitions are divided out, the group did not collect enough signatures to trigger the election.

Presenting a chart, Bussell told Perkins that some of the six proposed charter amendments are too vague to be enforced, others are facially unconstitutional and that since 4 Good Government did not make all six amendments “severable,” the entire charter amendment proposal must be dismissed.

State law and the Metro charter prescribe a strict process to be followed to do something as dramatic as rewriting the county government’s guiding document.

The 4 Good Government charter amendment proposal has six provisions:

  • Revert the property tax rate back to its 2019 level prior to last year’s 34 percent increase, and require voter approval on any future increase of more than 3 percent.
  • Make it easier to remove Metro officials by reducing the number of signatures needed to force a recall election. The proposal also blocks a recalled official from running for their office 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.

James Blumstein, a Vanderbilt professor and one of the attorneys hired by the three Republican-nominated election commissioners, said the matter came down to a philosophical question of whether voters or elected officials should have the final say on the key measures. Blumstein said elected officials derive their power from the people, and that voters deserve a chance to weigh in on the 4 Good Government proposal.

Along with fellow Republican-hired attorney Austin McMullen, Blumstein argued that any constitutional questions about the legality of the charter amendments should be argued after the referendum if voters approve them.

A separate lawsuit brought by the Nashville Business Coalition is slated for trial next month. And a third lawsuit regarding a Metro Council-introduced charter amendment, which would effectively neuter the 4 Good Government amendments if they passed, is scheduled for a hearing later this week. That lawsuit is a declaratory judgment motion filed by the election commission, whose three Republican-nominated members refused to put the matter on the ballot at a meeting last month.