The Tennessee House of Representatives passed legislation on Tuesday to cap local metropolitan governing bodies at 20 members, a law that would only currently apply to Nashville’s 40-member Metro Council. The legislation — House Bill 48 and its accompanying Senate Bill 87 — now moves to the Senate, where it’s expected to be met with overwhelming support from the chamber’s Republican majority.
If passed as written, the bill would force Nashville to quickly consolidate voting districts and possibly extend current lawmakers’ terms an extra year to remain in compliance with state law, which mandates elections in August 2024. Local elections for mayor, vice mayor and all 40 council seats are currently scheduled for Aug. 3, 2023. The bill would require new voter registration cards for all county voters, costing the Davidson County Election Commission around $250,000 in mailer fees.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) carried the bill through the House, defending the body’s right to intervene in local governments. Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson) carries the bill in the Senate, which will consider it on Thursday.
Advocates say that reducing the size of Nashville’s city council — the third-largest in the country, behind those of Chicago and New York City — will lead to a more efficient body. Critics cast the legislation as the latest unnecessary, petty attack on the city by partisan lawmakers.
Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Nashville) urged colleagues to reconsider ahead of Monday’s vote.
“We were No. 2 in GDP growth from 2020 to 2021," said Freeman. "No. 5 in job growth. No. 5 in population growth in the nation. For this body to sit here and vote to take away my vote in my city, saying it somehow doesn’t work well, I just don’t understand it. I understand everyone’s been told what to do, and you’re going to do it. But I hope people in this room understand the damage that this can have and vote against it.”
Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville), whose father was a charter member of Nashville’s 40-person council, recounted the history of the council’s size and spoke to its advantages.
“The number 40 didn’t just pop out of the sky," Love told his fellow lawmakers. "It was very strategic, it was very meticulous, it was part of what was negotiated in order to get the consolidation vote passed. This particular proposal seeks to take the number back to pre-1961 numbers. How are we to ensure the diversity of thought in a council with 20 members going from 40 to 20? Diversity of age, ZIP code, race and ethnicity, diversity of thought.”
Leader Lamberth dismissed concerns from his position on the dais.
“Other cities that are extremely diverse have figured out how to do this efficiently,” Lamberth responded. He cited San Francisco, El Paso, Denver, D.C. and Memphis, all cities with smaller councils. “This isn’t just about Nashville. It’s about every single city in this state not being able to expand and make the mistake Nashville made 50 years ago to have 40 members.“
Lamberth went on to criticize the city for financial mismanagement, citing rising property taxes and a high rate of debt per taxpayer.
“That’s not exactly the type of representation that I would think Tennesseans would expect out of their local city government,” said Lamberth. “But again, I will reiterate, this is not just about Nashville.”
Just three metropolitan governments exist in Tennessee, though this law would only affect Metro Nashville. In Hartsville-Trousdale County, a 20-member body represents 12,000 residents. In Lynchburg-Moore County, a 15-member body represents 6,600 residents.
Several current councilmembers have spoken in favor of cutting the body’s numbers, including Robert Swope and Jonathan Hall. Lamberth quoted Swope to demonstrate local support for council reduction.
In 2015, Nashville voters rejected a measure that would reduce the size of the council to 27. Last month, Metro councilmembers passed a symbolic resolution opposing state efforts to reduce its size. Three members — Hall, Swope and Tonya Hancock — voted no, while Courtney Johnston and Larry Hagar abstained.
This story was first published by our sister publication Nashville Scene.