To hear District 6's Mike Jameson tell it, recall should be a no-brainer issue for Metro Council members. The right of constituents to give an elected official the bootand in some cases replace him with an action herois overwhelmingly popular with voters. It's rare to anger that many citizens at once, says Jameson, so it's not terribly risky for the council to approve a recall resolution. Moreover, it would be a nonbinding gesture because recall procedures are dictated by state law. And besides, he says, giving voters the right to recall elected officials is "the right thing to do."
Jameson, in case you couldn't already tell, is new to politics. And he serves in a body where no-brainer issues often cause more controversy than the tough ones.
So it came as little surprise to most everyone when a resolution urging Nashville's state legislative delegation to fix statewide recall provisions hastily flopped in the Metro Council this month. Jameson's temporarily tabled resolution was designed to restore recall, which Davidson County voters approved by a 60 percent margin in a 1991 referendum. But that popular mandate was overridden by a provision, quietly added to state law in 1997, that made it much more difficult to recall district legislators. Instead of having to get signatures from 15 percent of voters in a district to recall that district's council member, state law now says you need signatures from 15 percent of voters in the county. It's a big difference, and theoretically, one council member's recall could be initiated entirely by people outside his or her district.
The recall issue came to the forefront again this year when some District 31 residents tried to axe council member Parker Toler, who supported the construction of a Super Target against their wishes. State law has successfully thwarted their efforts, at least for the time being.
Enter Jameson, who thought he'd try to fix the situation but apparently forgot to reread his copy of Machiavelli's The Prince before building alliances. The naive East Nashvillian convinced Toler to co-sponsor the recall resolution in what for Toler would be a grand display of magnanimity. "I thought it would be gracious and statesmanlike" of him to give his constituents a fair shot at recall, says Jameson. But at the Dec. 7 council meeting, Toler stood up and moved to defer his own legislation for a year, a move some council members say is unprecedented.
Unfortunately, he forgot to tell his co-sponsors. "There was no notice whatsoever," says Greg Adkins of District 26, a co-sponsor of the resolution. "He didn't contact me. He didn't e-mail me. He didn't even mention it to me until right before he did it. I figure as a co-sponsor he could at least tell me, but apparently not. The time I found out was when he made the motion on the floor." Adkins says he sits right in front of Toler, so it wouldn't have been hard for Toler to convey his intentions.
Of course, private meetings between council members are illegal under the state's sunshine law. But somehow, report council sources, District 22's Eric Craftonwho himself narrowly dodged recall seven years agoseemed to know Toler's intentions in advance. Crafton immediately called for a vote on Toler's deferral motion, forestalling discussion. "I had heard that that's what he was thinking about," Crafton says of the deferral, "and when he made the motion I knew that he was doing it."
Toler tells the Scene he requested the deferral because he wasn't sure he had enough votes to pass the resolution. And besides, he wanted a chance to study other cities' recall provisions. "There are too many times in the council that we pass a resolution and find out what we did is going to drastically or detrimentally affect someone," Toler says. His unprecedented deferral wasn't a political maneuver, then, but a principled effort to ask questions before crafting policy.
Jameson and others aren't buying it. "To say that it needs to be deferred more than a year to study the issueit's not rocket science. We've been told twice what to do," Jameson says, citing countywide referendums in 1991 and 1996. "I'm fairly confident that none of the council members have yet to set foot in a research library to study this. They're more likely off with O.J. looking for Nicole's killers."
Multiple council sources report that a predictable handful of council members, long dubbed the Great Whites, were behind the resolution revolt. Among them is Harold White, who reportedly called District 23's Chris Whitson a "son of a bitch" for co-sponsoring it, although Whitson later told the Scene he thought White was probably kidding. Another council member says White is "the most likely to get recalled" of anyone in the council. Maybe that's what got him so worked up about it.
Interestingly, 22 of the 40 council members said in an election-year questionnaire that they would support a change in law "that would allow voters, in their council district, a reasonable and timely opportunity to call for a recall election of their council member." Toler skipped the question on the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance's 2003 survey. Crafton, who told the Scene he's "not for recall, period," responded that he would support it. (He says "reasonable and timely" is in the eye of the beholder.) White, to his credit, said he would not favor such a change.
No matter how you feel about recall elections, most Nashville voters want them as a safety net, or at least they did last time they were consulted. State Rep. Rob Briley may introduce legislation to make local recalls meaningful, although he's not sure of his plans yet. Crafton, meanwhile, says he'll support a recall provision as soon as the legislature passes one for itself. And Tolerwell, let's just say no one's expecting him to run for reelection.
Jameson says he plans to file a new recall resolution in January, this time without Toler as a co-sponsor. (For his part, Adkins says he'd "definitely" like to co-sponsor any new recall legislation.) Having learned his lesson, next time around Jameson plans to lobby other council members (never in secret, of course) to get his "no-brainer" legislation passed.
"I'm still dumbfounded by the whole thing," says one crestfallen council member. "It was a chance for the council to look good. And then we went and did this." Another complains that it's hard work to be a Metro council member and that everybody, especially print media, likes to beat up on the council and "make us look like the Keystone Kops."
But don't worry: things could be different in 2005. A more mature council may take center stage as a tax increase looms on the horizon. A fiscally responsible bunch may give careful scrutiny to the Sounds ballpark deal. Serious and principled opposition may provide a meaningful check on the mayor's power as he eyes a third term.
Or at the very least a few members might get recalled. Jameson just has to gather some votes for his New Year's resolution.
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