“Jim DeLanis has been running a circus over here.”
The steam was still coming out of Councilmember Bob Mendes’ ears as he talked after the May 13 meeting of the Davidson County Election Commission. For the second time in four days, the commission led by DeLanis had failed to put a proposed charter resolution that was passed by the Metro Council in early April onto the ballot.
After watching anti-tax group 4 Good Government and attorney Jim Roberts try to get a measure to gut the city’s property tax increase on the ballot in the fall, Mendes and others began working on a measure to blunt the impact of the newest property tax repeal effort. Specifically, Mendes’ amendment says that if both measures pass, the council’s authority in Section 3 of the charter should be preserved. In short, if they conflict, the tie goes to the elected body and the authority issued to it by the state. Mendes’ proposal passed the council by a 40-0 margin — and that includes votes by all of the body’s conservatives.
Is it an end run? Absolutely. Is it necessary? Well, there’s a reason you don’t want amateurs tinkering with the language of the charter using imprecise wording. Vague language may be the currency of most politicians and hacks, but it’s anathema to anyone who has to use it in a legal context, like running a city government. Proper legislation does things like define terms and sections of the code that would be affected. And 4 Good Government’s proposed changes to the Metro Charter are the legal equivalent of a Facebook post from your angry relative.
DeLanis had already forced the 4GG proposal onto the ballot over the course of the past month, using two new Republican appointees to act as his yes men. DeLanis removed the commission’s previous outside counsel, Republican former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Bill Koch, for not agreeing with his efforts. And now with the prospect of his preferred measure having competition on the ballot, he took aim at the council measure.
“I just can’t vote for putting this on the ballot — I think it would be a horrible mess,” DeLanis said during Thursday’s meeting. He obliquely referenced Mendes from the chair, saying that even the council amendment’s own authors “couldn’t tell him what’s in it,” referring to a question in the previous meeting that Mendes had not answered to DeLanis’ satisfaction. “I’ve talked to smart lawyers, and they can’t tell me what’s in it,” he said, without naming the lawyers or their specific criticisms.
The Scene asked Mendes about DeLanis’ critique.
“The charter-revision commission, which has two former Metro legal directors on it, voted unanimously to support it,” Mendes says. “If it was unclear, I’d expect the charter revision commission to have found it, as that’s their entire job. He’s extrapolating that broad comment from a question he asked at the last meeting where he said, ‘Is this going to impact the satellite cities?’ It’s such a bizarrely uninformed question, my answer was, ‘I hadn’t thought about that.’ Metro Legal has since clarified that there’s no impact on the satellite cities, and somehow he extrapolates that into [the idea] we didn’t know what we were passing. It’s nonsense.”
During the meeting, Mendes was similarly blunt, calling DeLanis’ delaying tactics “pre-baked political theater” and “anti-democratic.”
“Even your own counsel couldn’t tell you it’s not legal to put it on the ballot,” Mendes said.
That counsel, Vanderbilt professor Jim Blumstein, was hired after DeLanis dismissed Koch. He’s being paid a significant fee plus a per-hour rate for support help from the firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings. Blumstein spent most of his analysis during the meeting sounding like the academic he’s been for the past half-century, opining for the better part of an hour on legislative processes, ballot processes and the “special need” for voters to know what they are voting for.
Oh, and Blumstein happened to provide opinions for DeLanis that supported the chairman’s political positions.
DeLanis and the two other Republicans ultimately voted to seek a declaratory judgment from Chancery Court instead of putting the council measure next to 4 Good Government’s amendments, adding more billable hours to the growing pile. Metro and the Nashville Business Coalition have already filed suit against the commission over 4GG’s spot on the ballot.
“This commission is not deciding on the merits of that referendum, it’s just deciding whether it goes on the ballot and whether it has met the legal requirements that we are allowed to consider before placing it on the ballot,” DeLanis said, putting the council’s proposal under the microscope in a way that he never did with 4GG’s proposal. His tactic appears to be causing a delay to prevent the two from showing up side by side.
But if that happens, that means Nashville would have not one but two countywide elections within the span of weeks or even days. The cost for taxpayers? Maybe an extra $1 million. It’s something that DeLanis, an unelected appointee, will never have to be accountable for.
When pressed on this, DeLanis punted after the meeting, telling the Scene that although of course he was concerned about cost, “We have to deal with the issues as they’re given to us.”
(We’ll note, for ironic purposes, that DeLanis’ law firm, Baker Donelson, has been involved for the better part of the past decade representing Metro in a lawsuit against the state in an effort to get schools fully funded. If 4 Good Government’s property tax measure were to pass, one of the biggest hits would likely be to the Metro Nashville Public Schools budget and teacher pay.)
It would be naive to say that politics have never played a part in the election commission’s work, but it’s hard to point to an instance where they’ve been this naked. At least now, with everything in litigation, we can quit pretending that this was about anything else.