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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Nashville sues to block law that would shrink its Council by half

The Tennessee law would limit the size of any city or county legislative body to 20 members, but its effect would be limited to Nashville.

By Emily Cochrane

The metropolitan government of Nashville sued the state of Tennessee on Monday, asking a judge to block a new law that would slash the size of its governing body to 20 members, from 40.

The standoff has emerged as a particularly stark example of flaring tensions between liberal-leaning cities and conservative state lawmakers around the country. State governments — particularly where Republicans control both the governor’s office and the legislature — have increasingly moved to overturn city policies.

The Tennessee law would limit the size of any city or county legislative body to 20 members, but its effect would be limited to Nashville: The Metropolitan Council that oversees both the city and the county that it sits in is the only local government body in the state to exceed that limit, with 40 members currently seated.

The more conservative state legislature has increasingly worked to curtail the policies of historically Democratic Nashville, most notably by dividing its voters last year into three separate districts that include rural Republican areas, all but guaranteeing the city would be represented by conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 150 years.

The relationship between the state and its largest city further fractured last year when the Metro Council quashed a proposal by Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, and his allies in the state legislature to host the Republican National Convention in 2024.

This month, the state House and Senate passed the bill aimed at cutting down the size of the council, with Lee signing it into law less than 24 hours after it reached his desk.

The legislature, whose session is scheduled to end in May, is also considering other measures that would further chip away at the city’s independence.

“It’s pretty clear this is an inflection point in history — the future of the relationship between the state and the metropolitan government will be dictated in large part by what happens in this lawsuit,” Wally Dietz, the law director for the Nashville metro area, said at a news conference Monday. He did not rule out the possibility of other legal challenges, should the legislature pass other measures targeting Nashville’s metro area.

“We are either going to have a future where the legislature can do whatever it wants to do without regard for our rights, without regard for the people who live here — that’s one option,” he added. “The other option is they have to respect our constitutional rights.”

A spokesperson for Lee declined Monday to comment on pending litigation.

Metro Council officials have scheduled multiple meetings to begin preparing for the new configuration that the law calls for, though Dietz said city lawyers were seeking to prevent the law from going into effect while the broader lawsuit moved forward.

Nashville officials have repeatedly pointed out that voters rejected a plan in 2015 that would have shrunk the council’s size, and argued that the new law denies the opportunity for voters to weigh in again.

Republicans have said the new law is not about targeting the city, though the lawsuit notes instances where lawmakers alluded to the effect on the Nashville area.

“Conventional wisdom for about four decades has been smaller group sizes tend to make better decisions,” said state Sen. Adam Lowe, a Republican, during legislative debate last week.

In court documents filed Monday, city officials argue that the law violates the state’s Constitution by targeting Nashville and that it does not give the Metro Council enough time to adjust its size, with a deadline of May 1 and local elections scheduled for this fall.

“Even if it is right, why would we upend the way that we do government in our city in the next six weeks and throw chaos into ongoing elections?” asked state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who is running for mayor, as members of his chamber debated the measure this month. His push to delay the law’s implementation until 2027 failed.

City officials also argued that it would upend the 1963 charter that first combined the governments of Nashville and Davidson County and established the 40-member council in part to ensure diverse representation that reflected its voters.

“Enacted less than five months before the next Metro Nashville Council election, the act will sow political chaos, create significant voter confusion, dilute voter representation and jeopardize running the state’s largest economic engine,” officials wrote in one filing, adding that the new law “does all of this in a rushed and haphazard fashion without any purported public policy goal.”

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