NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – While voters head to the polls Thursday for the state and federal primary elections, plenty of local municipal races will also be on the ballot. Tennesseans will also be deciding who should lead their towns, cities and counties in addition to who should represent them in the state and federal governments.

When deciding who will run their communities, voters will choose their preferred council members, aldermen or commissioners – but what do those terms mean, and what are the differences in them? How are different local governments formed in Tennessee?

Generally speaking, the terms alderman, councilor and commissioner can be used interchangeably, as they all mean a local government representative. Metro Nashville/Davidson County is represented locally by council members from specific districts as well as at-large council members. The town of Monteagle, Franklin, Grundy and Marion counties, are represented by a mayor and aldermen who serve the town at-large.

In Tennessee, there are multiple ways communities can set up their government. According to the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), the General Assembly makes grants of power to Tennessee municipalities through either private acts or general laws. A private act applies only to a specific city or town, while general laws apply to all cities or towns.

Private Act

There are 212 municipalities that have Private Act charters in Tennessee. These cities’ charters were all incorporated prior to 1953 when the state Constitution was amended to prohibit the practice.

Cities with a private act charter have a multi-step process to amend their charters. They must introduce the amendment in the General Assembly by their city’s legislative delegation and then ratify the new private act by either a majority vote of the governing body or a city-wide referendum.

General Law Board of Mayor and Aldermen

These forms of government have a board made up of a mayor and two to eight aldermen. The mayor in these governments prepares the budget, hires and fires employees and ensures all city laws and ordinances are enforced; however, the board as a whole may designate itself or someone else to perform any or all of these functions. 

The mayor may also appoint a city administrator by ordinance passed by the board. The mayor also holds a vote in these forms of government like the other aldermen. 

Sixty-six municipalities utilize the general law Mayor-Alderman charter, including Hendersonville, Gruetli-Laager and Estill Springs.

General Law City Manager-Commission

Under this form of government, a city has many options when structuring its governing body, according to MTAS. Small cities may have three to five commissioners. Cities with more than 5,000 residents elect five commissioners for staggered four-year terms. A larger city–one with more than 20,000 residents–may increase the number of commissioners to seven by ordinance. That ordinance is then subject to approval by referendum.

Elections in this form of government may be at-large or from single-member districts. The commissioners can select one of their own to serve as mayor, or the citizens can elect the mayor to a four-year term. 

The commissioners also appoint a city manager who may only be removed for cause during the first year of employment. The city manager is then responsible for purchasing, financial affairs, administration, presenting a proposed budget, selecting all department heads other than a city judge and seeing that all laws and ordinances are enforced.

Forty-nine Tennessee municipalities use this form of government, including Pigeon Forge, Goodlettsville and Piperton.

The mayors in this form of government may preside over meetings and have a vote, but they are not permitted to veto legislation that comes before the commission.

General Law Modified City Manager-Council

The modified city manager-council charter is less flexible than the general law city manager-commission charter. They have at least seven council members who serve single-member voting precincts for four year terms; or, if the city has fewer than seven precincts, the council is elected at-large.

The mayor is elected for a two-year term by the fellow council members instead of the citizenry. The council then appoints a city attorney and city manager.

This form of charter includes a recall provision for elected officials.

Mayors in this form of government preside over meetings and vote on issues but do not have veto power.

Only two communities in Tennessee utilize this form of government: Elizabethton and Union City.

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Metropolitan Government

State law provides a path that municipalities can take to consolidate their governments if they so choose. These governments are referred to as metropolitan governments.

There are only three Metropolitan governments in Tennessee: Metropolitan Moore County, Hartsville-Trousdale County and Nashville-Davidson County, but Nashville/Davidson County is not considered a “complete” consolidation because several communities elected not to participate in the metro government.

In order to form a metro government, a group called a charter commission is formed. The commission is made up of representatives from the county and principal city of that county. How the commission is formed depends on the county and city seeking to consolidate, but state law details multiple ways it can be formed.

If a commission cannot be formed by the people of both communities, state law says another attempt at a metro government cannot be attempted for three years.

Once formed, a charter commission has nine months to present a proposed charter for a metropolitan government, or an extended time approved by the governments of both communities.

That proposed charter must then be presented to voters through referendum.

Home Rule

A home rule charter is one a municipality can adopt and change by local referendum. Any private acts passed by the General Assembly do not apply to cities with home rule charters. The citizens themselves are empowered to approve or reject any changes to the charter by referendum.

State law requires the municipal chief financial officer to estimate the cost and revenue of any home rule amendments and that those estimates appear on ballots containing those amendments.

There are 14 Tennessee cities that utilize a Home Rule charter, including Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis.