Republican lawmakers and Tennessee's governor signed off Thursday on cutting Democratic-leaning Nashville's metro council in half, a move that follows the council's rejection of efforts to host the 2024 Republican National Convention in Music City.
Gov. Bill Lee signed the proposal into law less than an hour after the Senate voted to shrink Nashville's 40-member council. The Republican didn't issue a statement or warning, but he had previously said that generally he supported council sizes smaller than Nashville's.
The move drew an immediate outcry and is expected to spark legal challenges. Nashville Mayor John Cooper's administration and others say the change will throw this year's council elections into chaos, spurring the need to redraw districts after more than 40 candidates already launched campaigns.
“This attack on the Constitutional rights of Metro and the people who live here is very dangerous. It serves the interests of no one," said Wally Dietz, Nashville's law director.
Dietz added that the city is “prepared to vigorously defend the constitutional rights of our city and its residents.”
The law, which only applies to city or city-county governments, would cut Nashville's combined council to 20 people.
“Conventional wisdom for the past four decades has been that smaller group sizes tend to make better decisions and this is the largest council that we see," said Republican Sen. Adam Lowe of Calhoun. "... There’s a reason why we’re judged by 12 of our peers in a jury and there’s a reason, I think, why Christ walked with 12 of his disciples.”
Critics in Nashville have decried the efforts to dictate the size of its elected government while the city continues to grow and pull in more visitors, residents and revenue to the state. Others have argued that the change will erode representation of minority communities and hamper council members’ ability to address constituent needs.
The statute requires Nashville to craft new council districts by May 1 — a deadline Nashville's legal officials say is unreasonable.
Nashville has operated as a combined city-county government under a 40-member council since 1963, when leaders were wrestling with consolidating the city with the surrounding county, and others were working to ensure Black leaders maintain a strong representation in the Southern city.
To date, a quarter of the council’s seats are held by Black members, half are held by women and five identify as LGBTQ.
“This will set us back decades,” said Democratic Sen Charlane Oliver, a Black lawmaker from Nashville. “This will disproportionately impact the Black representation, the minority representation and dilute — not just dilute — it will steal and silence our voices.”
Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly voted for the proposal. But on Thursday, GOP Sen. Frank Niceley warned that a smaller council could result in fewer Republicans getting elected in Nashville because of larger districts, thereby strengthening the Democratic political hold inside the city and developing “more powerful Democrats” to run for offices.
“I don't know why we're doing this,” said Niceley, a Strawberry Plains lawmaker, who didn't vote on the bill.
The law says that if a metro government can’t make the changes for the next election, current members' terms are extended a year, and the next term will shrink to three years, then return to four for subsequent councils. City officials have said the scheme violates the state constitution.
Republicans killed a Democratic amendment that would have set the same limit for counties, some featuring more than 20 board members. They then rejected an amendment to leave the change up to voters, and another that would have delayed the change until after this year’s election.
Across the country, statehouses repeatedly flex their authority over municipalities despite concerns raised by community members who argue they should maintain local control.
In Mississippi, Black lawmakers have denounced a plan by the state’s majority-white and Republican-led Legislature to take over power from the capital city of Jackson. In Missouri, lawmakers are pursuing legislation to strip power from the Black woman elected as the St. Louis prosecutor. Missouri lawmakers are also pursuing a bill that would allow Missouri’s governor to control St. Louis police.
Over in Tennessee, the new law is one of several proposals the Republican-dominant Legislature has proposed this year after Nashville leaders spiked a proposal to host the Republican National Committee last year.
A separate bill would give the state control of the governing board for the city’s airport, stadiums and other landmarks, while another would remove Nashville’s ability to charge the tax that funds its convention center. Republicans have also offered a bill that would block cities from using public funds for reimbursing employees who travel to get an abortion.
The bills align with Tennessee Republicans push to limit Nashville and other cities over the years. This has included curtailing Nashville and other cities’ ability to ban short-term rentals, including Airbnb, and barring cities from decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana — which Nashville and Memphis had moved to do.