Republican state Sen. Watson seeks to reduce Nashville Metro Government’s 40-member council

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson speaks Sept. 8. Watson is sponsoring a bill to slice the Metro Nashville Council in half.

NASHVILLE — State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, is helping lead a legislative effort to reduce the size of the Metro Nashville Council by half, taking the council from 40 members to 20.

"Local government bodies need to be a size that allows them to function efficiently and effectively without compromising their duty to represent the people," Watson said.

Critics in Music City say the effort to shrink the council is thinly veiled retaliation against the council, which earlier this year torpedoed Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee's effort, along with the state GOP, to bring the 2024 Republican National Convention to the state's capital and its bustling downtown -- which is crammed with hotels, high-end restaurants and bars, music venues, honky-tonks and pedal taverns.

The council in August voted down a draft agreement for the convention, 22-10, with some abstentions and one open seat.

"It's a dangerous precedent for the legislature to interfere with the composition of local legislative bodies, especially as a form of political payback," Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said Friday in a phone interview on what he sees as the purpose of Watson's Senate Bill 87, which is being sponsored in the House by Majority Leader William Lamberth, a Portland Republican. "Everyone in this building knows that these proposals didn't start advancing until the recent kerfuffle between the council and GOP leadership over the 2024 RNC convention. What's another reason? I mean stated reasons are kind of hard to buy."

In a state Capitol interview, Watson dismissed charges the move was motivated by GOP lawmakers' displeasure with Metro Nashville.

"No, no, you've been up here," Watson said. "This has been a conversation in these hallways for a number of years, far predates the RNC stuff and all that. People have been saying stuff to us about it for a while. And Rep. Lamberth and I thought, well, nobody else seems willing to take this challenge on. We believe, I believe, this is really talking about having an effective and efficient, more than anything, level of government."

The city of Nashville and Davidson County governments merged in 1962 after both sides hammered out an agreement that called for 40 council members, 35 of whom are elected by district and the remaining five elected countywide. It ended years of wrangling and fighting between the two governments. Council members are elected on a nonpartisan basis.

Similar efforts by proponents to do the same with Chattanooga and Hamilton County in ensuing years ended repeatedly in failure.

"I don't honestly care what people's motivations are for whatever they do from a legislative standpoint," Metro Councilman Freddie O'Donnell, who represents District 19, said in a phone interview. "I mean, I pay attention to what the outcome is going to do, and in this case, they seem to be prescribing maximum chaos for a city that has already been through a heck of a lot over the past few years."


Read the proposed Small Government Efficiency Act

O'Donnell, who is running for mayor, ticked off events in recent years, including a deadly tornado, the 2020 downtown bombing, COVID-19 and multiple tumultuous elections. O'Donnell didn't say so specifically, but the latter was the result of the resignation of a mayor in a scandal revolving around her affair with her police escort.

He noted Metro Nashville just completed a redistricting process.

Efforts to reach District 4 Councilman Tom Swope by phone Friday were unsuccessful. He told the Tennessee Lookout he supports the legislation, saying the RNC vote wasn't the only reason but was likely the council decision that prompted the move after years of "poking the bear."

Swope told the Lookout the reduction will enable the council to work better.

"Right now, 40 people can't get anything done," Swope said. "We live in a city that is growing at an exponential growth rate and as a consequence, we need to become much more efficient and effective in government, and large does not always mean good."

Lamberth, House majority leader, said much the same in a statement earlier in the week.

"When government grows beyond a certain size, it hinders economic growth, taxes are inevitably raised and the standard of living for the average citizen is diminished," he said. "Government functions best closer to the people. This legislation will strengthen local democracy and competency by improving the ability of local elected leaders to effectively represent their communities."

The bill is targeted specifically to Metro Nashville. Only two other counties in Tennessee, both of them with far fewer residents, have metropolitan forms of government. But neither Moore nor Trousdale county councils have more than 20 metro members, and thus wouldn't be impacted.

There have been several attempts by Nashville Metro Council members to reduce the council size, but none have succeeded.

Under the legislation, beginning in 2024, metropolitan governmental bodies with more than 20 voting members in Tennessee would be forced to dissolve and create new districts using the latest U.S. census to arrive at equal representation.

The bill would allow current council members to stay on an additional year, a provision O'Connell questioned, saying multiple candidates have already filed to run.

Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper, who is viewed here as interested in seeking re-election, said in a statement that as recently as 2015, Nashville residents voted by a nearly two-thirds margin to keep the Metro Council at 40 members.

"Far from strengthening local democracy, today's legislation undermines the will of Nashville voters and effective local governance," said Cooper, whose older brother, former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, opted not to run for re-election last year after the state Republican lawmakers' redistricting plan split the county up between three Republican-dominant congressional districts.

"Contrary to claims by our state colleagues, this Metro Council has successfully facilitated historic accomplishments for our city – including record investments in education, enhanced support for our first responders and major economic development agreements that will directly benefit the state's economy.

"Nashville," the mayor added, "is the engine of the state's economy and the envy of cities across the country, and that success has been built with Metro's 60 years of good governing by our 40-person council."

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