Metro council reduction bill called act of retribution

By: - January 9, 2023 4:06 pm
Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A day before the 113th General Assembly convenes for the year, two lawmakers filed legislation that would cut the Metro Council in half, a move critics say is retribution for the refusal to go after the Republican presidential convention of 2024.

State Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee, and House Majority Leader William Lamberth are sponsoring the measure, House Bill 48, calling it a method for improving local representation.

“When government grows beyond a certain size, it hinders economic growth, taxes are inevitably raised and the standard of living for the average citizen is diminished,” Lamberth, a Portland Republican, said in a statement. “Government functions best closer to the people. This legislation will strengthen local democracy and competency by improving the ability of local elected leaders to effectively represent their communities.”

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, is the House sponsor of a bill to cut the size of Nashville Metro Council.(Photo John Partipilo)
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, is the House sponsor of a bill to cut the size of Nashville Metro Council.(Photo John Partipilo)

Starting in 2024, metropolitan governmental bodies with more than 20 voting members in Tennessee would be forced to dissolve and set up new districts using the last U.S. Census to reach equal representation. Only two other counties in the state, Moore and Trousdale, have metro forms of government, and neither has more than 20 members on its legislative body.

Metro Nashville has had 40 members since 1962 when voters adopted the metropolitan form of government, four years after turning it down.

Watson, a Hixson Republican from Hamilton County, said, “Local government bodies need to be a size that allows them to function efficiently and effectively without compromising their duty to represent the people.”

Once dubbed by former Metro Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley as “40 jealous whores,” the council irritated the Republican-controlled Legislature this summer when it refused to approve a deal to bring the Republican National Convention to Music City.

Such a measure to punish council members has been predicted since then.

But Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said Monday any debate about the size of Metro’s council should be among local voters.

“It’s counterproductive for the Legislature to start interfering with the composition of local government bodies, especially to enact some kind of political payback,” Yarbro said.

Metro Councilman Robert Swope, who favors the legislation, said the RNC vote wasn’t the only reason but was likely the council decision that broke the camel’s back after years of “poking the bear.” 

Swope contends the reduction will enable the council to work better.

“Right now, 40 people can’t get anything done,” Swope said. “We live in a city that is growing at an exponential growth rate and as a consequence, we need to become much more efficient and effective in government, and large does not always mean good.”

Swope argues that the council has been hamstrung since the early 1960s. Although Metro Nashville’s skyline is filled with cranes and business and residential growth is constant, Swope says the city could grow “even more and in a much more efficient manner if government would get out of its own way.”

The legislation also would allow council members, who face a two-term limit, to be elected to two more terms once the size of the body is cut in half. Thus, some members could wind up serving four terms. 

It’s counterproductive for the Legislature to start interfering with the composition of local government bodies, especially to enact some kind of political payback.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

Members represent 15,000 to 17,000 constituents under the current set-up, and five members are elected at-large rather than in districts.

At-large Council member Bob Mendes said Monday it’s “hypocritical” for the state to try to tell the local government how many members it can have on its legislative body.

“I think it’s a good way to make government less responsive if you increase the number of people in the district,” Mendes. “It’s typical poor drafting from the state, so it’s kind of hard to interpret how it will work in real life.”

Mendes pointed out that voters already put term limits in place and enabling some members to serve more than two terms would violate the will of the voters.

Council member Sandra Sepulveda was still digesting the legislation Monday afternoon and had numerous questions about the measure.

Still, Sepulveda said the bill is “absolutely” retribution for the council’s refusal to support the RNC in Nashville.

“How is this better for constituents? If they think we’re too big, right now the number of people we represent is smaller, so we have better communication and it’s more one-on-one. And it brings to mind what happens if we don’t vote the way they want us to on some other issue.”

The Metro Council did recently vote in favor of a measure setting up a revenue stream for construction of a $2.1 billion Titans domed stadium project. The Legislature approved a $500 million bond issue to help finance the project, which is supported by Republican leadership.

Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper issued this statement in light of the legislation: “As recently as 2015, Nashville residents voted by a nearly two-thirds margin to keep Metro Council at 40 members. Far from strengthening local democracy, today’s legislation undermines the will of Nashville voters and effective local governance. Contrary to claims by our state colleagues, this Metro Council has successfully facilitated historic accomplishments for our city – including record investments in education, enhanced support for our first responders and major economic development agreements that will directly benefit the state’s economy. Nashville is the engine of the state’s economy and the envy of cities across the country, and that success has been built with Metro’s 60 years of good governing by our 40-person council.”

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.