Nashville is the 22nd largest city in the United States.
So why in God’s name does it have the 3rd largest legislative body, behind only New York and Chicago?
The answer involves a boring municipal history lesson whose
details we’ll spare you. Suffice to say that when Nashville’s city and county governments consolidated in 1963, city elders had to compromise to get it done, and one of those compromises was a large legislative body.
Forty-three years later, however, this has become not only unnecessary but also a liability, an obstacle to progress. The 40-member Metro Council is a disparate, unwieldy institution with dysfunctional coalitions, a lack of vision and only rare consensus. The Metro Council always has been an easy target, but now target practice is all day long, all the time.
It’s never been unusual for headlines of a bizarre, amusing or embarrassing nature to emerge from the legislative assemblies of this body. But beginning at the founding of Nashville’s Metropolitan Government all the way through the Metro Council’s last term—which ended in 2003—the city’s legislature was moored by a caucus of wise men who, for better or worse, knew zoning from sewage and could navigate dissent on a bill without alienating their colleagues.
But the full effect of the two-term limit (eight years) for Metro Council members that Nashville voters have overwhelmingly approved by ballot—more than once—is being felt now more than ever. As a result, a number of seasoned council veterans have been dispatched to early retirement on the golf course. Their learned diplomacy and useful knowledge of just the right person to call about those smelly Dumpsters in the alley are lost to constituents forever.
The group now serving is a completely different beast altogether. It was elected in 2003 following a mind-numbingly irrational—and now notorious—debate about protection for gay city workers, which meant that many district elections proved to be referendums on homosexuality. The litmus test flavor of the election hatched a whole caucus of social reactionaries more suited to door-to-door canvassing for the Eagle Forum than to debating the minutiae of a $1 billion-plus city government. (After all, sometimes a sewer is just a sewer, and not a black hole created by Satanists.)
The seething activism of some Metro Council members is palpable and, what’s more, the body is so disorganized that, with a few exceptions, these “chuckleheads” (as one city official has called them) can’t even harmonize on what to be disagreeable about.
No one is more keenly aware of this than lame duck Mayor Bill Purcell, who announced last fall not only that he wouldn’t try to seek a third term in 2007 but that no other mayor should be in office 12 years either. So, he proposed, and plans to back, two Metro Charter amendments for approval by Davidson County voters: the first to make official what has been unclear until now—that is, that mayors can serve only two terms—and the second to cut the size of our Metro Council in half, to 20 members.
This proposal hasn’t made him any more popular among the “40 jealous whores,” as one former mayor once called the council, but voters may find merit in correcting the anomaly that is the size of our Metro Council. Nashville’s population is a mere fraction of Chicago’s and New York’s. We don’t need one person representing every 17,000 citizens, which is how the numbers currently break down. One representing every 34,000 would be just fine. The hitch is this: it’s the very council Purcell is proposing to gut that must cast the required 27 votes to put this on the ballot this year. If it were to do that, we predict Nashvillians would swallow it whole. Unfortunately, we have little faith that the misfits at City Hall will send the proposal to the voters. In which case, Nashvillians would have to rely upon a citizen-generated referendum initiative, which Purcell has indicated to the Scene he would put his weight behind.
Where do we sign?