Frustration, confusion, and redemption are three words that can describe last night’s council meeting. The council breezed through some legislation, such as rescinding the indefinite deferral on BL1631— resurrecting Councilmember Joy Styles’ Nashville Entertainment Commission proposal once more— and accepting $15,000 in grant money from the Titans Foundation that will go toward revamping North Nashville’s Looby Community Center. However, discussion on the floor turned tedious when they began addressing the two most contentious orders of business: the redistricting process to cap the council at 20 members and the overcrowding legislation, which would increase the amount of unrelated occupants per dwelling unit by redefining the term family.
SHRINKING COUNCIL, EQUITABLE COUNCIL
Last night, a resolution to decide how the redistricting process should be configured to cap the council at 20 members was discussed. Various options, presented as attached amendments to Johnston’s legislation, were broached by multiple councilmembers; some proposed splits between districted and at-large council members, such as 15 districted/5 at-large. Others supported an amendment calling for 20 districted members, with zero members at-large. Another proposed having sixteen districted members and four “super districted” members in lieu of at-large members, which, aside from forcing Metro to draw new, wide-reaching borders, would narrow the focus of what is usually the broad oversight fulfilled by at-large members.
The Planning and Zoning Commission will be in charge of redrawing the districts once the council decides how they want to go forward. During the discussion on the floor, the commission presented research for these various options to the council, with data showing how equitable the district demographics would be in each configuration. The consensus of the commission (not necessarily the council) was that a 15 districted council member, 5 at-large council member split would provide the most equitable representation for minorities.
As stated in the bill signed into law on March 9th by Governor Lee, the council is responsible for coming up with a redistricting map capping the council at 20 members or less by May 1st in order to hold an election this August. If they fail to meet this deadline, all current members are obligated to serve for one more year and come up with a solution that meets the new standards in time to organize a special election next year. Metro Nashville's law director, Wally Dietz, attempted to lay out the process to the council, but the 40 member body still appeared baffled and disoriented by the end of his explanation.
“Obviously, this timeline is suboptimal. It is not what any of us would do in a rational world,” said a dismayed Dietz. “But we’re not in a rational world.” According to Dietz, if the council members want to have a say in the new, capped council’s organization before the commission draws up new district lines, they will need to vote on their number and configuration before April 10th. If the council is unable to decide upon a definitive number, Dietz cautioned, the commission will be obliged to go forward with creating a redistricted map without their preferences taken into account.
Further complicating matters, the Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County filed a lawsuit regarding the council-capping bill last week which named the governor, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, and Tennessee Election Coordinator Mark Goins as the defendants. As it stands, the council still has to carry out the redistricting process outlined by the recent law even as the litigation makes its way through the courts.
OVERCROWDING AND REDEFINING FAMILY
BL2022-1471, which outlines dwelling occupancy in Nashville, was on final reading last night. Originally, the legislation would specifically redefine the term family in order to increase the number of unrelated people who can live in one “dwelling unit” from three to seven. This bill has been amended four times since its introduction six months ago in September 2022.
During a past meeting, there was a concerted attempt to amend the bill with a compromise that would simply cap the number of unrelated people who can live together at four. Frustration amongst council members was expressed during this final reading of the bill after a new amendment, sponsored by Councilmember Parker, changed it to four- to- five depending on a household’s square footage and number of bedrooms. As council members pursued clarification on this change during floor discussion, the same old reservations resurfaced, such as how to enforce the bill, how many cars would be allowed per dwelling, and how to gauge the living conditions for those who decide to live with up to five unrelated occupants.
While dismissing some of her colleagues’ scruples about this legislation, Councilmember Emily Benedict referred to this as a “boogieman” bill . “The problems are things that we already are seeing, like cars parked on grass . . . one of the best ways that we can slow cars down on our streets. . . is by stacking up cars on the street, parked.” In an effort to solidify the merit of her statement, she followed up with: “The more that we can have cars parked on our streets, the slower cars will go to get around them and that is truly, that is a true benefit.”
Currently, overcrowding is only enforced when a complaint is filed through hubNashville. Councilmember Courtney Johnston was promptly cut off while explaining this point when the order of the cue to speak was called into question. Subsequently, Councilmember Parker’s new amendment was voted down by council after a tie vote was decided on by Vice Mayor Jim Shulman. Parker then motioned to defer the bill two more meetings, a motion which Johnston attempted to table in an effort to kill the bill. A second vote was called, the vote was split again, and the vice mayor sided with Parker, granting the two-meeting deferral. This bill will be on final reading once more in April.