A referendum on Nashville’s local government threatens to drastically change the city’s operations and make it harder to undo changes in the future.
The city charter is the local version of a constitution. It lays out rules, powers and procedures for elected officials.
It’s the second attempt to shrink the local government’s power, led by lawyer Jim Roberts and an anonymous group called “4 Good Government.” The referendum has been described as a reaction to last year’s 34% property tax increase, but the ramifications are far reaching.
The Nashville lawyer is known to back more conservative initiatives, like the English-only referendum and keeping the racetrack at the Nashville Fairgrounds, which mostly draws in older, white people.
Right now, we don’t know who’s backing Roberts, or if he’s the only person. Roberts says it’s local people who fear retaliation, but many people have raised doubts about if that can be trusted.
If the July 27 referendum passes and its six separate changes are deemed legal, voters would return to the polls frequently. But special elections typically have low turnout so this could allow a minority of people that tend to be anti-tax and anti-government to have a larger role in making decisions for everyone in the future.
The city is suing to stop Nashville residents from weighing in, because they say many of the measures are illegal.
Here’s a breakdown of what the proposed changes are, how each would change the status quo, and their potential impacts.
Recall elected officials:
Current law: If residents want to recall an elected official, it takes 15% of registered Metro voters in the area they serve to sign on. The charter says the mayor, vice-mayor, council and board of education can be removed at any time except the first or last 180 days.
Referendum proposes: Slashing the amount of signatures needed and allowing more time for people to gather support. The elected official would become a write in candidate forcing voters to remember who they are versus automatically being on the ballot.
Intent: “All this does is change the system for how you do a recall, quite honestly, to make it easy, but not too easy,” Roberts explains to WPLN. “I don’t want people to recall every five minutes, but it needs to be something that can be done. When a politician does something really bad, it shouldn’t be impossible to recall them.”
Potential Impact: “It’s going to potentially cloud the person’s judgment because in the back of their mind, they’ll always be thinking, ‘Well, if I make this little group of people mad, all they have to do is go pull a petition,’ ” Charter Revision Chair Dewey Branstetter explains. “And they’ve got 75 days to get a couple hundred signatures and kick me out of office.”
Only voters can change the city’s charter:
Current process: There are two ways to change the city’s guiding document. Let’s say a councilmember proposes a charter amendment. That would have to be passed by council before going to two charter committees (like the one Branstetter is on). And then voters get the final say. Council can do this process only twice in four years.
The second option is residents get signatures for a petition. The number of signatures needed would depend on the most recent Metro general election. Then the rest of the city weighs in.
Referendum proposes: The group wants to change the rules so voters would have to offer their own amendment if they ever want to make future changes to petition-driven charter amendments.
Potential impact: If this referendum passes and problems arise later, residents would have the burden of conducting another petition drive to change things again. The council wouldn’t have the power to alter or undo it.
Restrict council’s power to raise property tax rate:
Current process: The Metro Council has the power to raise the property tax rate. It’s either based on what the mayor proposes, or the council makes its own adjustments.
Referendum proposes: It would cap the property tax increase to 3%. Anything more would require a referendum so voters would have to weigh in if the rate were to be increased beyond that.
Intent: Roberts says this will force the city to raise taxes every year to keep up with inflation. He sees it as giving the city “the spine” to keep up.
Potential impact: If this passes in July, the city could have to decide what to freeze or reduce spending money on this buget year because it would be short $40 million. That ranges from not improving greenways, reducing money towards schools or not expanding emergency response.
Voters decide elected officials’ benefits package:
Current process: Any changes council makes on benefits doesn’t go into effect until the next term. So, unless someone gets elected again, they won’t benefit.
Referendum proposes: Voter referendum for any benefit that elected officials receive.
Intent: A council and public debate about what councilmembers should get as their benefits package sparked this proposal. Council decided to reduce the lifetime health care subsidy after years of a stalemate.
Potential impact: Taxpayers pick up the bill every time they head to the polls. This specific special election costs at least $800,000. So if this passes, every time voters go to the polls you’d multiply that number. Right now, the petition language is so broad that it isn’t clear if it impacts just the council or all elected officials, like judges, district attorneys, public defenders, etc.
Restrictions on giving away publicly owned parks and greenways
Current process: Council can get rid of Metro property with a majority vote or they can say a property is surplus and sell it.
Referendum proposes: Metro Council would need 31 votes (a supermajority) to pass legislation giving any land away. It would require a voter referendum if the property were valued over $5 million and the lease goes for more than 20 years.
Intent: Roberts is aiming this part of the referendum at the council giving a portion of a park to Belmont University. “People stood up and fought it and litigated it, and they did everything they could to stop it,” he says. “In the end, they lost. Metro just gave away half of the park.”
This issue is more nuanced, and residents voiced mixed feelings about the project.
Potential impact: Unclear how this will hinder Metro long term. It would cost the city more money to do a referendum on this issue.
Give sports stadiums back to residents:
Current process: The city has different contracts for each sports stadium.
Referendum proposes: If a professional team leaves Nashville or doesn’t play for more than 24 consecutive months, all the property related to the team becomes public property. This seeks to end all contracts and require the city to pay for the property.
Intent: Roberts represented the “Save Our Fairgrounds” group that wanted to stop the MLS stadium from being built. “MLS came in here to steal this fairgrounds from us,” he tells WPLN. “The people behind this want to take this park land from us and never give it back.”
Potential impact: State law doesn’t allow existing contracts to be substantially changed, so this charter amendment would impact future deals.
This past year sporting teams didn’t play for an extended time because of the pandemic. It’s unclear how future deals would be impacted if another pandemic (don’t mean to freak you out) happens in the future that has a longer lockdown.
Correction: This story misstated the referendum’s proposed change to how voter amendments work. If the referendum passes, but voters want to change or repeal its provisions later, they would have to gather petitions and offer additional amendments.