Starting this week, Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans is touring Nashville offering a bargain to anyone who will listen.
In exchange for allowing council members to serve three consecutive terms instead of two, you can eliminate 13 of them. Or if it better suits your perspective, in return for shrinking the council to 27 members, you can keep your representative for longer.
Evans is sponsoring a proposed Metro Charter amendment that would do both of those things at once. It would do away with 13 council seats, leaving 27 members — 24 district representatives and three at-large members — and allow them to serve three consecutive four-year terms, instead of the two they get now.
After approving term limits in 1994, Nashville voters have twice rejected proposals approved by the council to add a third term. In his analysis of the amendments, council attorney Jon Cooper notes that several council members have proposed reducing the size of the body over the years, but those proposals have never been approved by the charter revision commission or by the council as a whole. As a result, voters have never weighed in on the idea.
Evans' proposal is the first to combine a reduction in council members with an increase in the years they can serve, and she's betting that will make the difference with voters, if not the council. The amendment went down in flames Tuesday night, as Evans expected it would, with just 10 votes in its favor. More council members supported a change in term limits — although a proposal to do that alone also failed — but several spoke strongly against the idea of shrinking the council. They cited the risk of diminished representation and responsiveness, as well as the potential that shrinking the council would increase the influence of special interests and strengthen the mayor. But Evans had already decided to attempt a petition drive in order to get the idea on the November ballot. So she's booking up her weeks, toting a presentation on the idea to neighborhood groups, political party chapters, and your book club if you'll have her.
Her first stop was earlier this week at a meeting of the Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association, in the basement conference room of the Ronald McDonald House. Addressing approximately a dozen people, she started off by clarifying her motivation. Her primary goal is not to reduce the size of the council, she says, but rather to save the city from the impending "harms of term limits." But she posits that the council's past attempts to grant members extra terms have failed, at least in part, because they haven't offered voters anything in return. So she's included a reduction in the size of the council — hoping her compromise will solve that problem and bring together voters who support each idea separately.
Her presentation lays out the damage from term limits, as she sees it. Next year, 24 members plus the vice mayor will be term-limited. That's roughly 60 percent of the council. What troubles Evans is this: At the beginning of the next council term, 16 members will have just four years of legislative experience, and the rest will have none. Zero. Not a single council member will have voted on the Music City Center, for instance. This lack of institutional memory, Evans argues, inhibits long-term problem solving.
In front of this group, which seems perfectly happy with the way Councilwoman Berkley Allen has represented them, loosening term limits isn't such a tough sell. But there is more pushback when it comes to the notion of reducing the size of the council, thereby increasing the number of constituents in each district and diluting their representation.
Currently, Evans says, each council district contains an average of 17,905 people. Redrawing the city into 24 districts would bump that number up to an average of 24,112 people per district. Some Hillsboro-West End neighbors wonder if that will make it more difficult to work with the council on neighborhood-specific issues like zoning, because each council member will have more constituents and more issues to address.
Evans counters by saying increasingly diluted representation is a natural phenomenon.
"You're less represented every time somebody is born in your district and every time somebody new moves into your district," she tells the Scene the day after the meeting.
As for rezoning requests, she says, those are declining and will continue to for two reasons. First, as the city becomes more developed, there is less land to zone. Second, the shift away from parcel-by-parcel zoning to mixed-use plans for larger areas means zoning is less fixed and more flexible to change over time.
Evans' presentation addresses a variety of other points too — constituent services, council elections, and the effect her amendment would have on the council's ability to serve as a check on the mayor's power. (The Metro model will always inherently favor the mayor, but she says a smaller council would have some more muscle.)
Will the public buy Evans' idea? Who knows? But at least nobody's heard this pitch before.
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