My piece in this week's print issue of the Scene is on the beginning of Councilwoman Emily Evans' effort to loosen term limits and shrink the Metro Council.
A resolution to place a charter amendment to that effect on the August ballot was widely rejected by the council earlier this week, but Evans had already said she would try to get the amendment on the ballot via petition drive. So that's what she's doing now.
The amendment would allow members to serve three consecutive four-year terms — instead of the two they get now — and reduce the council to 27 members, three at-large and 24 district representatives. Evans insists her motivation is to change term limits, and she says reducing the size of the council is worth it if it gets the public to agree. Among the objections to that side of the deal raised so far are the way reducing the council would dillute each citizens representation and the notion that a smaller council would be more easily influenced by special interests and more easily controlled by the mayor.
At Tuesday's council meeting, At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine spoke in opposition to Evans' amendment. He said he supports a change in term limits, but not a reduction in the size of the council. Here's part of what he had to say:
I think one of the things that’s special about this city is that we are a great example of little ‘d’ democracy. District members are generally accessible and responsibile and in the rare occasions where they’re not, at-larges are supposed to feel the void and substitute in those instances. But we are as a body, amongst the most responsive elected officials in this country. And that’s one of the things that’s special about Nashville.
I often facetiously say the council ought to be judged by our actions, and not the quality of our debate. And that’s only facetious because I value the fact that this council is the great weather vane of this city. Every possible opinion in this county / city is reflected in this body at one time or another. And that gives us at the end a better result than if there were few of us representing more people in this body.
All positions and opinions are heard and we fight with each other and at the end of the day we make a decision. Former Mayor Fulton used to always say if you can’t get 21 of 40 people to agree to something, it probably is not a very good idea in the first place. So I believe, in essence, going smaller decreases accessibility for citizens of Nashville, I think it will increase the cost of elections for both at-large and for district races, it will increase the influence of special interest groups which is relatively minimal here relative to other bodies on the state and federal level. It will certainly increase the power of the mayor, and I do take issue with one of the local editorial writers that says somehow former mayors would want a larger council. Any mayor in their right mind wants the fewest amount of people to influence. It would certainly save [special assistant to Mayor Karl Dean Marty] Szeigis a lot of time if there were fewer of us that he had to deal with. And I think it diminishes the quality of our work here because it provides fewer viewpoints and fewer kinds of experience throughout this community and our decision making. I also wonder what outcomes would be different. We’d all pick some outcome that we disagreed with, but by and large if you look at the quality of work in this council, it’s high quality.
I spoke to Evans (before the council meeting) about some of the issues with shrinking the council that have been raised. Here are some of her responses:
On reduced representation:
I quote Evans in the piece saying that "you're less represented every time somebody is born in your district and every time somebody new moves into your district." In other words, a growing population will naturally reduce your representation by increasing the amount of people in each district. She goes on:
“It isn’t are you less represented, cause time will assure that of happening," she says. "You look at the U.S. Congress, they decided that they couldn’t grow that big so every single day in the United States you’re less represented in Congress. So it isn’t a question of whether you’re less represented or not the question is does it matter? Is it going to negatively impact your community? Is it going to negatively impact your ability to reach your council person when you need to on important issues? IS it going to negatively impact your council person’s ability to do their job? And if you look at the other representatives, the school board, the House, the Senate, they don’t seem to have a problem with it.”
On whether a smaller council would be more easily influenced by special interests/lobbyists and more easily controlled by the mayor:
Evans says she believes the council would be stronger if it were smaller.
“I’ve got to acknowledge, 40 people makes the mayor much stronger than 27," she says. "I think, you know, [former Metro Finance Director under former Mayor Bill Purcell] David Manning said it really well to me one day, he goes ‘I would’ve loved it if there were 100 of you.’ Which is a way of saying you can always find the votes you need, the bigger the group to pick from. Certainly council is going to have a little more muscle. But the system is not designed to give the council as much power as other legislative bodies vis-a-vis their executives. It’s just not.”
I asked Evans if a smaller council doesn't just mean the mayor or a lobbyist has less votes to find. She says she thinks if anything, a change in council size would be a wash for paid professionals and would actually benefit average citizens and neighborhood groups.
"If you are either the mayor or let’s say you are a special interest, you’re a lobbyist, and you’re lobbying on behalf of XYZ waste management company," she says. "The lobbyist and the company are going to get whatever resources are necessary to make sure that they get passed what they need to get passed. They’re going to apply the resources necessary whether there are 100 council members or there are five council members. So the paid professional people are going to get what they need done because when you look at the cost of lobbying the council versus a large council that they may try to get approved, it’s inconsequential."
"Now, let’s say you’re a neighborhood group and you are trying to get a conservation overlay group or you’re a neighborhood group that’s trying to stop bad development. You don’t have unlimited resources. You have very limited resources. So, to me, the balance in that situation doesn’t go to the lobbyist or the mayor with unlimited resources, it goes to the people with less resources. Because now suddenly, they have less of a challenge.”
She cites her experience working on neighborhood issues before she was elected to the council.
“I say that as someone who starting in 2003 worked on a very, very controversial conservation overlay for my neighborhood, I have worked on the tree ordinance, I’ve worked on sign ordinances, before I ever got elected," she says. "So, reaching 21 people or 27 people or 14 people whichever the case may be, when you’re doing it as a volunteer job with no budget, is hard. Very, very hard.”
On increased zoning responsibility:
One issue, brought up by council members on Tuesday and at the neighborhood meeting Evans attended on Monday, is the idea that a smaller council would increase the burden of zoning work for individual members. Evans says adding land to a district doesn't necessarily mean more zoning work.
“It’s true that District 18 has had a rather large number of zonings in 2013, but if you look at all of 2013, some of us had zero," she says. "Some of us had one. So if you were to add territory to District 18, you’re not necessarily adding zonings.”
Beyond that, she says zoning work will decrease over time because we're running out of work to do and the city's approach to zoning has changed.
"First and foremost, you’re running out of land to zone. This is not 1963 and this is not 1985. That’s the first thing," she says.
"The second part of it is our approach to zoning has changed. In the 1980s and even into the mid 1990s, the zoning approach was here’s a piece of land, I will zone that piece of land to match the zoning category for the use that I want. So I will take it from agricultural to residential, I will take it from residential to commercial, what have you. And you would do that on a parcel-by-parcel or tract by tract basis using this kind of general community plan. Starting in the 2000s and now really reaching its apotheosis with the midtown rezoning, we started moving towards mixed-use and encouraging mixed-use to discourage these big suburban subdivisions. So now what we’re doing is we’re looking at all of downtown, and saying OK here are the various uses and the various heights, so that the individual parcel-by-parcel zoning is diminishing in favor of these sort of holistic approaches to vast areas.”
Evans is booking up meetings around the county to make the pitch, and she's bringing with her a lengthy presentation that touches on these and other issues related to term limits and the size of the council. To get the amendment on the November ballot, the petition must have signatures equal to 10 percent of the voters voting in the August general election. Evans says she hopes to have a treasurer appointed for the effort soon.