City, county have options in forms of government

City, county have options in forms of government

September 5th, 2011 by Ansley Haman in News


• Knox

• Shelby

• Charter efforts ongoing in Giles and Fentress counties


• Resolution by county commission

• Proclamation by county mayor ratified by two-thirds majority of county commission

• Petition by 10 percent of qualified voters

• Private act of the Tennessee General Assembly


• Nashville/Davidson County

• Lynchburg/Moore County

• Hartsville/Trousdale County


Metropolitan: A noncharter county and city consolidate. There are several ways to form a charter commission:

• Private act of the Tennessee General Assembly

• Petition signed by 10 percent of qualified voters who cast ballots in the previous gubernatorial election

• Resolution approved by majority votes of the county commission and most-populous city. (County mayor appoints 10 members, city mayor appoints five.)

Unification: A charter county and a city consolidate. Ways to form a charter commission include:

• Proclamation by county mayor, subject to ratification by county commission

• Resolution of the county commission approved by city council of the most populous city. (City and county mayors each appoint eight members, mayors of smaller cities electing to participate appoint one member each.)

• Requires a chief executive and a legislative body of no more than 19 members

(No Tennessee government is a unification government, though an unsuccessful attempt was made in Knoxville and Knox County.)

Sources: Ron Fults, Knox County Law Director Joseph Jarret, County Technical Assistance Service, Tennessee Code

As Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield continues to push for the consolidation of the city and Hamilton County, residents might need to brush up on the forms of government allowed by Tennessee law.

Understanding the difference between consolidated governments such as Nashville and Davidson County, and charter counties such as Knox and Shelby, is difficult for many state residents, said Gary Hayes, with the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service.

"The primary difference between metro and charter is you can exercise more power [in metro]," Hayes said. "The whole theory of [metro government] is that down the road you're going to get more cost-effective government."

In both situations, the local government can make laws in areas where state law is silent, Hayes said.

State law changed in 1978 to allow counties to create their own forms of government. Two counties successfully created and passed charters -- Shelby and Knox.

"Charter government only affects the county," Hayes said. "The city has no say-so in the form of charter make-up."

Knox County Law Director Joseph Jarret said the charter makes local governance easier.

"It gives us the ability to pass local laws, provided they don't conflict with state laws," he said.

Knox and Shelby counties adopted charters before a 1995 law gave counties the authority to pass ordinances. The legal changes reduced the incentive to create a charter government, Hayes said.

But charter government has its drawbacks, Hayes said. Few cases testing the boundaries of charter governments exist, leaving some uncertainty about what such governments can and cannot do.

For 25 years, counties operated under the assumption that a charter could not change the roles of constitutional officers such as trustee, county clerk and register of deeds. A 2007 Tennessee Supreme Court decision in a Knox County suit reiterated that counties could alter constitutional offices through a charter.

A Knox County citizens group unsuccessfully attempted to change some of the constitutional officers from elected seats to appointed ones in a recent referendum, Jarret said. A separate citizen referendum reduced the size of the Knox County Commission from 19 to 11 members.


One of the three metropolitan governments in the state -- the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County -- is often heralded as an example of consolidation.

The government formed in 1963 to avoid quarrels about annexation by ordinance, said Ron Fults, legal counsel with the Greater Nashville Economic Council. Two political forces, the executives of Nashville and Davidson County, pursued consolidation.

Fults said metro government assists with economic development. He said it played a part when Bud Adams decided to move the Tennessee Titans to Nashville.

"In Nashville he only had to deal with only one local government," Fults said. "In Memphis he would have to deal with both the city mayor and the county mayor."

Consolidation also has been used as a defensive mechanism. Lynchburg and Moore County consolidated to prevent annexation by Tullahoma, Fults said.

Once a government consolidates, the consensus legal opinion is that other municipalities cannot annex into it, Fults said.

Smaller charter governments within a consolidated county can elect to give up their charters but don't have to.

Hayes said one benefit to residents of metro governments is they get one tax bill.

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