More than half of Metro’s 40 councilmembers penned an open letter Monday to Mayor John Cooper addressing concerns that the Tennessee General Assembly in its special COVID session infringed upon Nashville’s ability to govern itself.
The most significant request the letter makes of Cooper is that Metro Nashville begin exploring ways to circumvent — or perhaps fight — the new laws in court.
Supermajority Republicans in the legislature unanimously called for a special session to address COVID-19 restrictions, which began Oct. 27 and culminated on Saturday, Oct. 30, with the passing of a gamut of restrictive policies that the open letter — signed by 24 Metro councilmembers — characterizes as collectively “unprecedented and dangerous.” This speaks specifically to five prohibitions against Metro’s ability to pass mandates affecting its own facilities, venues and schools, plus rules that ostensibly undo Cooper’s executive orders, pandemic response ordinances and even Metro’s ability to appoint its own health director.
The letter concedes the difficulty of discerning whether this understanding of state legislation is accurate and therefore calls upon Metro Law Director Wally Dietz and his staff within two weeks to put together a full report for Metro Council’s review to determine how the new policies impact Metro authority across the board. Dietz is a little more than four months into the job after having replaced Bob Cooper in June.
Andrea Fanta, a spokesperson for Mayor Cooper, says Metro Legal has already begun a review of the legislation and that Ginger Hausser, an intergovernmental affairs adviser for Cooper, briefed Metro department heads on the special session Monday. She will brief the executive committee of the Metro Council on Wednesday.
“We share the councilmembers’ concerns regarding recent state legislation,” Fanta says.
The letter expresses being “unfortunately accustomed” to state government overreach, yet speaks to the lack of precedent for last week’s special session.
The laws in question come from deliberations late on Friday and early morning Saturday, for which much of the heavy lifting in drafting the bills was conducted in private with no accessibility for the general public. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration already brought concerns to General Assembly members that one of the measures it passed would let the federal government commandeer state safety regulators. Metro’s letter relatedly cites what it calls “a new ‘anti-commandeering’ rule" against even spending any money to enforce federal mandates in any COVID countermeasure.
Other policies have already incurred outrage from the local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and other business groups at their empowerment of employees’ abilities to sue employers over vaccine mandates for injurious reactions.
New rules disallow Metro or Metro Nashville Public Schools from enforcing employee vaccine mandates and mask mandates or requiring proof of vaccination to enter the city’s entertainment venues. The letter also claims the new legislation gives the state commissioner sole power to quarantine a person, close a private business or school for COVID or restrict a private business’s operation.
Gov. BLee has not said whether he will sign the bills.
“Be sure to read this point a few times and let it sink in,” the letter emphasizes on the state commissioner’s authority expansion. “The state will have the SOLE power to close a school due to COVID. The state will have the SOLE power to limit the operations of a business due to COVID.”
Gov. Lee’s office also becomes the only authority that can issue pandemic-related executive orders based on Metro Council’s assessment of a line that reads: “The commissioner of health and a local health department, board, entity, county mayor, or official shall not supersede, vacate, contradict, or refuse to comply with [the governor’s] executive order or directive of the governor [related to a pandemic].”
The letter’s signatories:
- Burkley Allen
- Emily Benedict
- Russ Bradford
- Tom Cash
- Erin Evans
- Jennifer Gamble
- Jonathan Hall
- Tonya Hancock
- Angie Henderson
- Sharon Hurt
- Bob Mendes
- Robert Nash
- Sean Parker
- Delishia Porterfield
- John Rutherford
- Sandra Sepulveda
- Colby Sledge
- Joy Styles
- Zulfat Suara
- Jeff Syracuse
- Brandon Taylor
- Kyonzté Toombs
- Nancy VanReece
- Ginny Welsch