NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The bill that would gut the size of the Metro Nashville Council has been signed by the governor following a final vote in the Tennessee Senate over the objections of Nashville Democrats.
House Bill 48 by Sumner County Republican William Lamberth caps the number of elected officials of any metropolitan government at 20. Currently there are only three metropolitan governments in Tennessee, and only the Metro Nashville-Davidson County government had a council of more than 20 members. Metropolitan Lynchburg-Moore County has a 15-member body, and Metropolitan Hartsville-Trousdale County has a 20-member body. Metro Nashville Council is currently a 40-member body.
During debate, every Nashville Democrat appealed to the constitutional sensibilities of their Republican colleagues, questioning whether or not there could be legal ramifications to enacting the measure. Sen. Charlane Oliver further asserted that passing the bill would “set us back decades” in terms of minority representation. Sen. Heidi Campbell said the decision to reduce the size of the council should be a local one rather than a “retributive action” from the legislature.
Republicans countered that reducing the size of the council was not retributive in nature but a matter of efficiency. Sen. Frank Niceley (R—Strawberry Plains) said having fewer people on the council would be better for everyone, from the mayor to lobbyists.
Per the terms of the bill, the council must elect its new representatives at the next general election. If it cannot meet that deadline, the bill gives the option of setting a special general election on the first Thursday in August of 2024, with council members to be elected for a three-year term beginning Sept. 1, 2024.
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Metro Nashville will have 30 days from the effective date of the bill to redraw its district lines, which must be approved by May 1, giving the current council less than two months to do so.
The bill was then immediately signed by Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday morning.
Metro Nashville Law Director Wally Dietz issued a statement following the passage of the bill, calling the measure an “attack on the Constitutional rights of Metro and the people who live here” and stating the bill has multiple legal pitfalls.
“House Bill 48 and Senate Bill 87, as passed, contain several serious legal defects which will make them impossible to legally implement,” he said in the statement.
“First, there is simply not enough time to change the law this late in the election cycle. Over forty candidates have already appointed treasurers and are actively raising money for Council Districts that ostensibly will no longer exist. Petitions are to be issued a week from Monday. The qualifying deadline is May 18. Even if the Planning Commission prepares a map and the current Metro Council passes a redistricting plan by May 1, the confusion and uncertainty that follows will be prime for legal challenges from a range of affected parties.
“More fundamentally, these bills violate the Tennessee Constitution in multiple ways. A number of Metro leaders and advisors, including Mayor Cooper, attempted to point out the legal defects to the legislature and state leaders before either body voted, but those warnings were largely ignored.
“Additionally, the legislature rejected an amendment that would have cured one of the most significant flaws, by allowing the voters in Metropolitan Nashville to have a straight up or down vote on a smaller Metro Council and postpone any change until voters approved the change. That suggestion, among others, to make these bills workable was rejected.
“This attack on the Constitutional rights of Metro and the people who live here is very dangerous. It serves the interests of no one. Not the State of Tennessee. Not the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.
“We hope cooler heads will prevail, but in the event they do not, we are prepared to vigorously defend the constitutional rights of our city and its residents.”
Following the Senate floor session, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally spoke on the bill, saying it was “probably a good change to reduce the size of council.”
“I think it’s a little too big, and I think there’s a mechanism in there where they can, if they act fast, at the planning commission redistrict the seats fairly,” he said.
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This is a developing story. WKRN News 2 will continue to update this article as new information becomes available.