We’ve seen plenty of hoopla surrounding the “shrinking council” legislation filed Monday, which limits all Tennessee metropolitan governments to 20 council members. Since these new stipulations only affect Metro Nashville, the bill has very pointed implications. To keep from being caught in a narrative web, let’s compare HB48/SB87 with the setup of the current metro council:
- Current seats 35 district reps, 5 at-large vs. Proposed seats: 20 total
- Current terms: limited to two two-year terms (though one can serve four years as a district rep. followed by four years as an at-large member) vs. Proposed terms: unlimited, four-year terms
In the new proposal, the responsibility of drawing the new district lines will be left up to the local municipalities. The terms and district reduction would be introduced gradually: first with a special election in 2024 seating the 20 new district members for a three-year term, with normal election cycles thereafter.
As for the Republican National Convention (RNC) retribution narrative: sure, this legislation might be some form of retaliation, but getting to the bottom of it would be like pulling a thread– there are countless reasons for why this bill was brought forward. Instead, let’s examine how this bill affects the power structure in Nashville: for starters, it actually strengthens the collective power of the council against the mayor’s office. As it stands, 40 council members with limited experience bring forward legislation every other week and try to wrangle 21 or 27 affirmative votes (depending on the circumstances). During this recent administration, for example, Mayor Cooper often uses triangulation to forward his office’s solely focused agenda. While making business deals with the state, he leaves the groundwork and public interfacing to the council—as we saw with the stadium deal. By pushing legislation which may agitate the state through council members, the mayor avoids personal conflict while leaving the council to fight the political battles with the legislature’s Republican supermajority— as shown by the rejection of the RNC.
THE COUNCIL IS THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE?
Multiple politicians and columnists have claimed that the state is unfairly overreaching its power with this move, hindering the will of the people–- an interesting notion given the council’s recent history. Nothing says “power to the people” like adding four knotty charter amendments onto the longest ballot in Davidson County history– one of which made it harder for the Metro Charter to be amended by public petition. Unsurprisingly, this limitation was deemed necessary after 14,000 Nashvillians filed a petition against 2020’s 34 percent property tax increase.
The council is famously unreceptive to dissent from its politically unaligned constituents, as shown by the limitations set by the charter amendment voted through on August 4th, 2022 and their penchant for expediting their decisions. Case in point, over the last year, a number of resolutions were brought forward proposing rules changes aimed at further expediting Metro Council’s decision-making process.
So, in summation, while HB48/SB87 creates a lot of restructuring and work, it also grants the council the time and power to be more effective by lengthening terms, eliminating term limits, and decreasing the consensus needed to pass legislation. Only time will tell if state leaders, and perhaps even some council members, will get behind this bill during this year’s General Assembly.