Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Metro Council, ‘Get thee to a nunnery’

January 13, 2023 6:02 am
Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

It’s on.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth is trying to sell legislation that cuts the Metro Council to 20 members, claiming it would be better for efficiency and the economy.

He might be right about efficiency. In fact, some Nashvillians say this is no punishment for the people. There’s a reason the late Mayor Beverly Briley decades ago called the council “40 jealous whores.”

But about that economy? Has anyone driven by and through Nashville recently and seen the construction taking place? Can we return to 1986, please?

Nashville might be getting In-N-Out Burger soon enough, which has decent burgers and terrible fries (only eaten it once). My gosh, before you know it, we’ll be LA (not Lower Antioch). But this burger joint’s going to be an afterthought by the time they build every one of these skyscrapers and massive apartment buildings. And as far as competition, it might not crack the city’s top 10 in best burgers.

Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland
Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland

Fast-food aside, Lamberth, a Portland Republican, (and you might be wondering why someone from Portland cares about the Metro Council) contends Nashville has the third largest council in the nation and it needs to shrink.

“Not that they’re not able to persevere through that. But it’s something that’s holding them back, so while they’ve done fine thus far, we feel like they could do even better,” he says.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton agrees, saying he’s talked to numerous people in Davidson County, including business owners, who think the council is “inefficient and dysfunctional.”

Critics of the legislation, mainly council members, say it’s tied directly to their vote against luring the Republican National Convention to Nashville in either 2024 or 2028. Sexton points out the council said it would at least opt for 2028 but then didn’t.

Rumors of the council slash started floating immediately after the negative RNC vote last summer. Thus, Lamberth’s move to file the legislation Monday, the day before the General Assembly convened, didn’t surprise a soul.

Members of the Davidson County legislative delegation are already lobbying Lamberth, telling him the council feels alienated from the Legislature after years of acrimonious bills. They also maintain that the RNC motive is clear.

Fittingly, Lamberth’s legislation would affect only metropolitan forms of government and hold them to 20-member councils.

Metro Nashville, I’m now told, had 35 council members elected from districts when the metro form of government started in 1963. The state Legislature, however, mandated the addition of five at-large members, largely to water down the votes of Black residents.

Are they now correcting that decision?

Apparently, this is not a case of being good for the goose and the gander, either.

Efficiency? House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who is from Sumner County, is sponsoring a bill to cut the size of Nashville’s Metro Council from 40 to 20 members. Sumner County recently increased the size of its council from 12 to 24, meaning each county commissioner represents about 8,356 people; Nashville’s council members represent more than 20,100 constituents each.

Sumner County, Lamberth’s home county, has 24 county commissioners for 200,550 people, 8,356 per rep. 

Each district in Metro Nashville has 20,112.9 residents, and five at-large members serve too, giving every district two representatives. 

That puts Sumner above the 20 threshold, but Lamberth points out county governments are established constitutionally while city governments are set up statutorily, meaning the Legislature can tinker with city councils at their whim.

Clearly, all is well in Sumner County, which would gladly take the RNC if it had the facilities.

It should also be noted that the metropolitan Trousdale County’s commission, in Sen. Ferrell Haile’s district, has 20 members plus the mayor who serves as chairman. With a population of 12,035, they each have 615.25 constituents. 

Meanwhile, the Moore County Commission has 15 members representing 6,644 residents, only 442.933333 constituents each. You can see those commissioners so often you’d probably get sick of them.

One Davidson County lawmaker notes that every person in town wants to be able to see their council member at the grocery store, too.

But the real question is whether it’s a good practice for the Legislature to start telling Metro Nashville voters what to do. They just reaffirmed support for the 40-member council a few years ago.

Questions are being raised, as well, about part of the bill that would add a year to every current council member’s term. The legislation would give them until 2024 to stay in office, and they could double up on their two-term limit after that.

Regardless of whether 40 is too many (and it probably is), the Legislature is in danger of stepping out of bounds — without two feet down — and overturning the will of the people. On review, Titans fans would call this an incomplete pass.

Raising a ruckus about kids

The Kids Count report released this week about the plight of children in Tennessee showed our beloved state has the highest rate of foster care instability in the nation, with 33% of kids in state custody shifting between three homes in their first year.

Democrats said Thursday they want Gov. Bill Lee and the Department of Children’s Services to move quicker for solutions. Even though the state recently hired 52 more caseworkers and set their caseload at 10, Sen. Heidi Campbell and Rep. Gloria Johnson say more needs to be done immediately rather than waiting for another budget year to start in July.

Johnson, D-Knoxville, says social workers are still being required to sit with children in offices, work seven days on call and often go two weeks without a break. Yet when they’re babysitting they don’t have time to work on cases.

“They just can’t manage the stress,” Johnson says, and many are retiring even though they love their jobs.

Tennessee has one of the most draconian abortion bans in the country, and fails to pony up money to appropriately care for children in custody of the Department of Children’s Services. “To not be taking care of our children is indefensible,” says Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville.  

She points out the state has some $15 billion in reserves and surpluses. Why not go ahead and spend some of it now on an emergency, especially with agencies such as DCS offices in Nashville putting caseloads of 100 on social workers?

“If you don’t do everything you can do with Children’s Services, a child can die,” Johnson says.

Campbell, D-Nashville, is adamant that in a year the state is forcing women to give birth with one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, “to not be taking care of our children is indefensible.”

At least the Lee Administration is doing something, but then again this escalated under his watch. Part of the plan is to increase privatization of child-care because the state can’t find enough traditional foster care families.

Campbell warns, however, “Profit is not a good motive for organizations that are supposed to be taking care of people.”

The Tennessee Lookout reported on children sleeping in state offices about two years ago. Finally, the Department of Children’s Services is taking notice. But if the governor wanted to shake things up and remove these children from the confines of offices where they can’t even take a shower, he could do it.

Shut up and vote

The House of Representatives adopted new rules Thursday that supporters say will streamline government and give more people a chance to debate the issues.

In a discussion that stretched for what seemed like eternity, members went back and forth on the new rules for debate, which will limit one member’s exchange to five minutes. 

For instance, if Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis stands to speak — which probably hasn’t taken under 10 minutes in the last decade – he will now have only five minutes, not just to make a statement but to ask a question and then to receive a response from a fellow lawmaker. And they will put you on the chamber’s clock.

Hardaway already has a strategy to get around the new rule but wouldn’t divulge it Thursday. He’ll need a good one, too, because this could allow him to ask a quick question and then an opposing member to filibuster for the rest of the five minutes. So he and others better fill up most of their allotted time before asking a sponsor to explain a bill. 

When we’re spending billions of dollars of the citizens’ money, I think we oughta spend a little time on that. Or before changing the whole funding system of how our children are educated in this state, we ought to spend a little time on that.

– Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, of a new rule limiting lawmakers' speaking time to five minutes

Republicans, who hold the supermajority and can pass any measure without giving much explanation or response, lost their patience fairly quickly during Thursday’s debate, some milling around and complaining about numerous questions. Democrats felt it was one more attack on their minimal chances of passing or derailing legislation.

“When we’re spending billions of dollars of the citizens’ money, I think we oughta spend a little time on that. Or before changing the whole funding system of how our children are educated in this state, we ought to spend a little time on that,” says state Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville.

More than likely, only about three or four bills a year would be affected by protracted debate, he argues.

Often, the minority party will give the House Speaker a list with six members who request to speak on a certain bill. They don’t have to raise their hand or stand to be heard.

But Mitchell says as soon as that sixth person is finished, a member of the House Republican Caucus will “call for the question,” a move that ends debate and requires an immediate vote on the bill.

It’s about as predictable as the sun rising in the East.

“The majority has the votes to win. … But in a free society, a democratic society, the minority voice should be heard,” Mitchell says.

The new rules also give committee chairs the ability to require members to submit questions in advance, something that could be even more chilling than the five-minute limit.

“Rev on the red line”

In a victory for openness, though, Speaker Sexton announced this week the TGA House Dashboard will allow the public to view all House committee and floor calendars, legislation, amendments — including those proposed and approved the the House — and video in a “timely and straightforward manner.” That includes red lines to show where legislation has been changed or amended.

“Tennesseans want transparency in our processes, and they deserve to know more about the legislation that we are proposing and attempting to pass in the House,” Sexton said in a statement.

The information will be available in real-time. To use the app, go to TGA Dashboard (tn.gov), log in, register and activate the application for immediate access.

Key Senate appointments

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally appointed state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, to serve as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, filling the position vacated by Mike Bell. He also reappointed state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, as chairman of the Education Committee. Just a month or so ago, Lundberg wasn’t certain where he would land.

“Sen. Gardenhire is a strong conservative who understands the need for a tough-on-crime approach. Having previously chaired the legislature’s powerful Fiscal Review Committee, Sen. Gardenhire is well prepared to take the reins of this important committee. I look forward to great things from Chairman Gardenhire,” McNally said in a statement.

Gardenhire, I hear, isn’t certain whether this new job is a reward or punishment. Nevertheless, he raised questions this summer about the Lee Administration’s decision to undercut Tennessee’s Community Corrections program, which has the support of judges, district attorneys general and some public defenders because of its success in bringing people back from the brink of prison. Word has it pending legislation could revive the program or at least protect it from the Department of Correction.

Open judgeship filled

Gov. Lee appointed Stanley Kweller as Circuit Court judge for the 20th Judicial District this week, filling the vacancy created by the sudden 2022 death of Judge Phil Smith in Nashville.

Kweller has 45 years of legal background and worked as an attorney for Watkins & McNeilly, PLLC. 

Oddly enough, Kweller donated to the campaign of Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk, a Democrat, in 2022 in 2014, the late Judge Smith in 2021, the late Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark in 2014, the Davidson County Democratic Executive Committee in 2012 and former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2005.

The horror. The horror of it all.

Bishop delivers prayer despite litigation

Knoxnews reported this week that Bishop Richard Stika tampered with a rape investigation, confirming independently what had already been asserted in a lawsuit.

Reporter Tyler Whetstone previously reported that Stika sat on a review board that investigates sexual misconduct accusations even though the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville knew about the abuse allegations by Jane Doe for almost two years.

Bishop Richard Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville, photographed by John Partipilo on Tuesday before he gave the 113th General Assembly’s opening prayer.

Stika was invited by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to give the Senate’s opening prayer this week in Nashville.

Asked about the matter this week, McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider issued a statement saying, “Bishop Stika has been a pillar of the Knoxville community and a respected Catholic priest for many years. The allegations against him are just that – allegations. The bishop is entitled to the presumption of innocence just like any other American.”

“Somebody get me a doctor”

The Beacon Center released a report Thursday showing the denial of certificates of need for medical facilities through “arbitrary government restrictions of unelected bureaucrats” have led to $730 million in lost revenue to Tennessee communities over the last two decades.

Since 2004, the number of certificate of need applications has fallen by 70% as the state’s population has increased by 18%, according to the report. 

The report contends that healthcare providers should be “free” to invest and expand in growing communities rather than be prohibited by state laws.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee.

“With healthcare as expensive and complex as it is, the government shouldn’t arbitrarily limit options and access for patients by protecting current providers from competition,” Beacon Policy Director Ron Shultis said in a statement. “Repealing CON laws will save lives, and this should be one of the top priorities at the legislature this session.”

“Doctor, my eyes have seen the year/ And the slow parade of fears without crying.” (That’s not a quote from Shultis.)



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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 from the Tennessee Press Association.

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