Metro sues state for taking control of airport authority

Nashville claims state violated Constitution with move to wrest authority from local government

By: - June 13, 2023 6:02 am
The Tennessee General Assembly took control of the Metro Nashville Airport Authority from the city in 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee General Assembly took control of the Metro Nashville Airport Authority from the city in 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Metro Nashville government filed suit Monday against the state’s top political leaders, claiming they violated the state Constitution with a move to shift control of the Metro Nashville Airport Authority.

Filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, the lawsuit contends the Nashville Airport Authority Transfer Act “fundamentally” changes the structure and control of the authority by vacating the board, removing the power of the mayor and Metro Council and transferring it to state officials. The lawsuit names Gov. Bill Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

“This action violates the Tennessee Constitution’s home rule and equal protection clauses,” the lawsuit says, calling for the court to declare the law unconstitutional and stop it from taking effect. It notes the state did not target other airports in the state’s large cities.

Tennessee’s home rule amendment is designed to stop the state Legislature from targeting one or two local governments without a referendum or a vote by its government body.

After the Metro Council refused to enter a contract last year to lure the 2024 Republican presidential convention to Nashville, the Legislature passed several measures seen by critics as punishment, including a move to cut the Metro Council to 20 from 40 members, take over appointments to the airport and sports authorities and lower the number of votes needed to renovate at the Metro Fairgrounds race track in advance of plan to bring in NASCAR.

A lawsuit brought by Metro Nashville against state leaders charges a new law changing the composition of the Metro Nashville Airport Authority violates Tennessee’s home rule amendment, which is designed to keep the legislature from targeting one or two local governments.

The airport law allows the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker to appoint six of eight seats on the airport board, taking away most of the authority of the mayor, who appoints all seven current board members.

Metro contends state law passed in 1969 gives local government “sole discretion” to set up a metro airport authority and full control over appointments to a board of commissioners.

Republican lawmakers argued this session the appointment process should be changed because the Metro Nashville airport has become a “regional” facility funded by the entire state. Metro, which points out the airport consists of more than 1 million square feet with 380 flights daily, calls that a gross “generalization.”

McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said Monday the lieutenant governor is confident the law will survive the legal challenge.

“The Greater Nashville area and its airport have grown significantly. BNA is now a regional airport and should be governed like one. Metro will not be without influence. But it will need to share power as BNA fully transitions from a small municipal airport to large regional international airport. This is reasonable, legal and fair,” Kleinheider said in a statement.

Sexton issued a statement Monday saying, “I do appreciate Metro recognizing the significant investments made by the state to help transform BNA into a world-class, international airport. We are all aware of BNA’s significant growth and the vast majority of users being from outside of Davidson County. Additionally, over the last decade, the state of Tennessee has provided over $200 million in funding to BNA to aid in growth and show our commitment and mutual interest. This isn’t just about the number of travelers or visitors; it’s also for economic recruitment interest for all of Middle Tennessee. BNA is a great asset for our state, and the sharing of appointments will only enhance it.” 

In contrast, Metro says the airport isn’t funded by the state of Tennessee but is “self-supporting,” deriving most revenue from sources such as landing and terminal fees, concessions, parking and various other sources, which goes to pay debt. The airport’s total operating revenue was $210 million in fiscal 2022, with $29 million coming from the state and $26 million from the federal government, according to the filing.

Metro contends members of the airport authority, an “instrument” of the local government, can be removed only by a two-thirds vote of the Metro Council after a public hearing. Under the new law, which Lee signed May 19, airport authority members can be removed any time without “cause.”

“In other words, the act takes control of the Nashville Airport Authority away from Metro Nashville and gives it to the state,” the lawsuit says.

Because the state would appoint a majority of board members and hold “unfettered dismissal powers,” the act shifts financial control to the state government and prohibits it from spending money without state oversight, which it calls “clearly a fundamental transfer in the authority’s governance.”

The lawsuit also claims the law poses “significant risk of disrupting federal airport funding,” noting the Federal Aviation Administration won’t take action on proposed changes in operations as long as Metro disputes the changes.

The FAA sent a letter in early April questioning the state’s transfer of power, but Nashville Airport CEO Douglas Kreulen said at the time the federal government failed to show what type of impact the new law would make.

Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, at right, pictured with Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson. Garrett sponsored legislation to allow the state to appoint members to the Metro Nashville Airport Authority. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, at right, pictured with Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson. Garrett sponsored legislation to allow the state to appoint members to the Metro Nashville Airport Authority. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In addition, Metro contends that statements by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Johnny Garrett, were incorrect because appointment of a new board would be a “change of governance” with the power to adopt new bylaws and hire new staff.

Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, is quoted in the lawsuit as saying during House floor debate, “There is no change in ownership. There is no change in governance. Even though the new members may be on the board, they’re still governed by the same bylaws, they still have the same staff. The only thing that’s changing is who gets to appoint members of the board, so this does not trigger FAA issues.”

Garrett, nevertheless, conceded in House debate that the act applies only to the Metro Nashville airport. 

In a statement today, Garrett called the lawsuit “deeply disappointing” and noted he’s “not surprised” that Mayor John Cooper would rather “litigate than work with the General Assembly.”

“We believe Tennessee taxpayers deserve fair representation, transparency, and oversight of their investment. Nashville is clearly not interested in the long-term success of one of our most valuable assets,” Garrett said in a statement.

Likewise, Sen. Paul Bailey, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, indicated he designed the measure around the Nashville airport but “offered promises” he would bring similar bills targeting other airports in the state’s largest cities, according to the filing.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, pointed out the lawsuit shows Metro has no choice but to depend on the judiciary to act as a “check” on the Legislature and governor.

“In their clumsy haste to dance for donors and grab more power, Gov. Lee and his legislative conspirators in this unconstitutional endeavor once again failed to get their legal ducks in a row and stay on message, creating a clear legislative record and strengthening Metro’s lawsuit,” Clemmons said in a statement.

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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.