Metro Legal Could Cost the City Money for Another Election

Metro is knee-deep in something stupid right now.

When Mayor Megan Barry stepped down on March 6, Vice Mayor David Briley took the office on an interim basis, and her resignation triggered a special election to fill the remainder of her term. The logical time to do this would have been on May 1, when the city goes to the polls to vote for clerks, judges and a referendum on a huge transit initiative.

Instead, the Metro Law Department has ruled that the mayoral election will be in August. Why? Because, they argue, the August election constitutes a “Metro general election,” which is where such elections ought to be.

All of this goes back to 2007 when voters amended the Metro Charter to add council members to the special election provision so that Metro Council seats wouldn’t sit empty. The language of that resolution is this: “There shall be held a special metropolitan election to fill a vacancy for the unexpired term in the office of mayor and in the office of district councilmember whenever such vacancy shall exist more than twelve (12) months prior to the date of the next general metropolitan election.” An overwhelming 83 percent of voters approved the amendment, and it carried every single precinct in the county.

Metro Law Director Jon Cooper and his staff believe that the August elections constitute a “Metro general election” because of the presence of a few countywide races. Attorney Jamie Hollin and Ludye Wallace argue otherwise. Wallace, a former council member, picked up papers and qualified to run for mayor when Barry resigned. He and Hollin went to the Davidson County Election Commission and argued that a special election should be called sooner. By a 3-2 vote along party lines — Republicans against a special election, Democrats for — the commission shot down the idea of a quicker election. After Hollin and Wallace filed suit in Chancery Court, a judge shot them down again (although a careful reading of Claudia Bonnyman’s decision makes it clear she was certainly thinking about ordering a quicker election). So they appealed directly to the state Supreme Court, which took up the case last week.

At this point, there are three possible outcomes, as Councilmember Dave Rosenberg astutely points out on social media. First, the Supremes could side with the Metro Law Department and order the election in August, and in this scenario, a flurry of charter amendments to clarify the special election provision would likely be filed to keep this from happening again. Second, the Supreme Court could order a special election in late May in line with how the state code sets up special elections, costing the city a boatload of money for a single-question race. Or finally, Metro Legal could throw up its hands and concede and put the race on the May 1 ballot, saving everyone a lot of time, effort and money — maybe millions.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Cooper and his staff are holding on to this case with such tenacity. But the one thing I am sure of is that Metro voters never intended for mayoral and council offices to remain vacant for this length of time. In January, Briley tried to get a special election on the May 1 ballot for Nick Leonardo’s council seat after Leonardo was appointed to General Sessions court. He was shot down. Now District 1 residents must wait until August for a representative.

If you go back to the 2007 analysis of the amendment provided to the council by its legal staff — which Cooper was part of — it reads that the change “provides a proposed amendment to the Metropolitan Charter to require that a special election be held to fill vacancies in the office of mayor and district councilmember whenever more than one year is remaining in the unexpired term.” The emphasis is mine. The Metro Council clearly envisioned there being a special election, not just waiting until the next general election.

This is a giant waste of legal energy. I asked Briley’s office why the mayor, who is Cooper’s boss, hadn’t stepped in.

“Mayor Briley has not attempted to influence Jon Cooper about the city’s legal position regarding the date for holding the mayoral election,” says Briley spokesperson Michael Cass. “The Metro Charter gives the law director sole authority to pursue litigation. The Law Department has consistently taken this position over the years, and it also represents the Davidson County Election Commission, which made the decision to hold the election in August. It would not be appropriate for an elected official to try and interfere with a decision that was made by the Election Commission, especially when that decision was made upon advice of counsel.”

So this is Cooper’s crusade.

With Wallace, Briley and perhaps more already lined up to run in a special election, there’s no reason to wait four months. Every day that Metro Legal drags this out increases the chances that we’re going to have to pay for an election just days after holding another one. That just doesn’t make sense.

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